Award-winning author E.J. Wenstrom didn’t considered herself creative enough to be a writer until a mentor encouraged her otherwise. Her Chronicles of the Third Realm War (City Owl Press) is described as “a peculiar mashup of Greek mythology, Judeo-Christian folklore, and an extra dash of her own special brand of chaos.” The series currently includes the prequel Rain, plus Mud and Tides (books one and two). Connect with Emily on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and on her website at EJWenstrom.com.
How does the Third Realm War series fit into your E.J. Wenstrom tagline “Improbable Heroes & Epic Twists”?
These were two things, beyond genre, I felt were likely to be part of anything I wrote. I’m a bit of a contrarian by nature, and I don’t like to write the expected. My heroes tend to be antiheroes—there is something that is difficult to like about them, or something that makes them a bit of an underdog. They’re not clean-cut. I especially love a difficult female protagonist.
I like to think the same is true for my plots—they don’t necessarily flow as tidily as would be obvious or comfortable, but then, in the Third Realm Wars series, these characters are in the middle of a war, and war is messy.
What sparked the initial story idea for Mud, the first book in the series?
I knew I wanted to give writing fiction a try, and I knew I didn’t want to write another vampire book or zombie book. I love both of these monsters, but I knew I was unlikely to compete in such a crowded field right out of the gate. So, I started browsing through monster encyclopedias for inspiration, and golems captured me. I started mulling over this concept, and a voice started coming to me—Adem’s voice. I started writing to understand how he’d gotten so desperate and lonely.
What is it about your main characters that makes readers connect with them? (You put Adem through hell in Mud. Did you ever feel sorry for him while writing his story?)
As I said, my protagonists tend toward the anti-hero side—they’re not always likeable, and their motivations and actions are not always everything they should be. But they’re always trying their hardest. It’s just that sometimes we’re too broken to know what’s best, or the people around us are too broken to help us find the right path. Throughout my books, everything these characters try to do to make things better, only makes things worse.
Do I feel bad for them? I don’t know, a little I guess. I certainly feel some empathy for them. It’s part of the job! But ultimately, I’m here for the story, and their suffering makes the story better, and a strong story gets me excited. I guess I’m cruel like that.
What was the most difficult aspect of world building for the books?
In a series, each book is a little harder than the last when it comes to worldbuilding—you’re more boxed in with what you’ve already written. Mud was my first novel, and I wish I’d known to think ahead more about tracking and plotting out the worldbuilding details I created from the start. As I get deeper, it sometimes feels like my back is against the wall. But then I think some more, and eventually the answer comes, and the characters find their way again. Live and learn—next series, I’ll be ready. I hope.
When did you know you had taken Mud as far as it could go and that it was ready for publishing? Did the process of writing/editing/revising get easier for Tides, the second book?
I wrote and rewrote Mud for several revisions until I thought I had it as good as I could get it. Then I found critique partners and shared the most important and most challenging sections with them, and revised a lot more from their feedback and the ideas I got from those discussions. Then I got beta readers for the full manuscript and did it all over again. When I had gone through these phases enough that I could not find anything else to do with it, and I was proud of what I was left with, that is when I started submitting to agents and editors.
Tides was not easier. It was different. It was hard to break free of Adem’s voice (I’d really fallen in love with that character hard) and even harder to sink into a new voice that felt true to Rona. So that took a draft or two to settle into. But once I got there, yes, I do think that the cadence and pacing was a bit easier. The third novel in the series has been the hardest by far. Not sure why, it just is what it is. I guess each book is its own life.
Rain is the prequel to the other books in the Chronicles of the Third Realm War series, but it was published between book one and book two. How or why did that come about?
I think it’s pretty common that, when you create a fantasy world, there are all these little hidden backstories and origins and other tales that just never find a place in the main series. To know what happened to Adem and Rona and Kythiel and the other core characters, I had to know about Nia, Calipher, and Bastus. So to tell that story was very satisfying.
But I’m a pragmatist too. I only wrote Rain because I had a purpose for it. Rain started out as a loss leader—a freebie story I gave away to new subscribers on my email list. Now they’re all on Kindle Unlimited so I give away short stories instead, but that was its original purpose. Without that purpose, I’m not sure I could have justified the time for Rain, so I’m very grateful to City Owl Press for letting me experiment with this model.
But business aside, I love Nia. She is the most difficult character in a series about difficult characters and difficult choices. And I really love to talk to readers about what they make of her, and how they come to terms with her. I really don’t think we can have too many difficult female characters in fiction these days.
Of the three books in the series so far, which one did you enjoy writing the most?
That is very difficult to say. If I’m choosing, I suppose Rona is my favorite character because she has such a determined, pain-in-the-ass strength in her. But…there is something about that first book, and the first characters you create. When you’re not published yet, there is no pressure. I nurtured Mud in a different way that I am not sure I could recreate. So Adem, the protagonist of that novel, will always have a very special place in my heart. But I think an author really falls in love with all her characters. It’s impossible to spend so much time with these stories if you don’t.
What first inspired you to become a writer?
I love to tell this story, but I’ll try to keep it short here. The thing is, I was never going to be a writer. I wasn’t a creative person. This was about the only thing I was sure of. I was going to be an engineer. Or a teacher. Then a book editor. But writer? No way. That was for someone else. Then I found myself serendipitously in a writing internship at a Grand Rapids, Michigan magazine publisher. And suddenly, I had to write.
And this is where I majorly lucked out—the managing editor there who supervised the interns was previously a high school counselor, so he was amazing at working with us. He made me feel like I could do this. And I started daring to try more. Then something clicked, and I was never anything but a writer ever again. I wrote for blogs, for magazines, for marketing agencies. Then one day we were spitballing in the office about some outer space thing happening, and I made some off-the-cuff comment I can’t remember. What I do remember is that my coworker said, “You should write a novel about that.” Click. Aha. I haven’t written that novel yet, but it set me on a path.
If the stars aligned, what past or present television or movie series would you love to write for (or be involved with in any capacity)?
Buffy. True Blood. Santa Clarita Diet. I love that twisted, monstrous, super campy stuff. Stranger Things.
You have years of experience as a content strategist for online platform building. What do most authors misunderstand about this aspect of the writing/publishing business?
Yes! I think it can be hard to get the connection from platform to sales for a lot of authors. It’s not a direct line, so it can be hard to justify all the time it takes. It’s more about the relationships over time, letting your potential readers and other industry professionals get to know you as a person. We all love to support people we like, right? It’s better to relax into it a bit, have some fun, and focus on making genuine connections, and don’t worry about how each post converts to sales.
Are you a pantser or a plotter?
I’m a pantser by nature, but Mud took five years to write because I was driving blind and had so much restructuring to do in revisions. So impatience has led me to a bit of a middle ground where I pound out my first rough draft in beats rather than sentences, just getting the bones in place. That way I can put off the time-intensive work of making it cohesive and pretty until I know where I’m going. I write about a novel every 12-18 months now with this approach. Still not fast, but a lot better, and it is a pace that lets me proud of what I create.
What is the best encouragement or advice you’ve received in your writing journey?
Ray Bradbury said that the best way to succeed in writing is to simply persist and not give up. I’ve seen it from many other authors too. And it rings true to so many success stories from authors who “made it.” We all get rejection, hardly any of us are major hits from the debut, but if you keep at it, you’ll get there.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I’ve got a few things in the queue and I’m really excited about all of them (particularly a few young adult projects in science fiction and dark fantasy). Most immediately, I’m revising the fourth Third Realm Wars novel. It’s been the hardest story for me to write so far, but I’m very excited about what it is turning into.