A local father-daughter literary duo with valuable advice for aspiring writers.
Terry Persun is one of the Northwest’s most prolific authors. In addition to 11 novels, he’s published three volumes of poetry, a guide to independent publishing houses, and dozens of short stories and poems in Kansas Quarterly, Wisconsin Review, and other prominent literary journals. In addition, he’s served on the Board of Trustees for the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA) for more than a decade, and makes regular appearances at conferences and seminars throughout the country.
His daughter, Nicole J. Persun, is an accomplished writer in her own right. She began publishing short stories as a teenager and penned her first novel while still in high school. Her second published novel, Dead of Knight, debuted on bookshelves last month. In addition to her academic studies (she’s on track to earn a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Goddard College next year), Nicole serves as student liaison for the PNWA and meets with aspiring writers from all over the region to discuss career choices and networking opportunities. Her work has appeared in such publications as Rainshadow Magazine, Minotaur, and Unusual Stories, Volume 1.
Terry, what initially brought you to Seattle?
I was born in Cogan Station, Penn., a little crossroads outside Williamsport. I was in the U.S. Air Force for six years, and I traveled all over the place. My wife and I were living in Ohio, and we decided to go out west and see what was out there. I knew about Copper Canyon Press, so we started in Washington and worked our way down to southern Oregon. But we decided to settle in Port Townsend.
When did you realize that writing was not only something you were passionate about, but also a potential career choice?
I’ve been writing since I was in grade school, so I’ve always enjoyed it. I wrote a lot of short stories and poetry during the 70’s when I was in the Air Force, but I didn’t know much about it until I got a job with Chilton Company, which was a business-to-business magazine group in the 1980s. At that point I realized I could be writing and making a living at the same time, but I’ve always worked on creative projects in parallel to the technical stuff.
You’ve tackled a wide range of literary genres in your previous work, such as historical fiction, political thriller, dystopian fantasy and mainstream fiction; you’ve also published several volumes of poetry and a writer’s guide to working with independent publishers. Are there any other styles you’d like to attempt?
It’s funny because I probably don’t know. When it comes up, I do it. I like projects. Sometimes I’ll read a book and get an idea, and then I’ll just move in that direction. A good writer can go anywhere.
Where do you derive the ideas for your projects?
I read a lot of science and technology magazines, so I write a lot of science fiction and technology-based fiction. I think most writers work like this. But I read pretty eclectically, and listen to a lot of people’s conversations. An idea will grow from there until it’s a proverbial snowball rolling down the hill.
What can you tell us about the projects you’re currently working on?
Right now I’m working on Book Three of the Doublesight series. I’m actually looking for other writers to write within that series, so it’s a bigger project than just me. I’ll probably have four or five books in that series, and maybe I’ll move on to something else. I also have short stories and poems I’m pretty much writing at all times. Nicole and I have also talked about working together on a book that discusses how to write fiction.
When did you first become involved with the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, and what are some of the highlights from your time with this organization over the years?
When I first moved to the Northwest, I saw an announcement about an event for the PNWA. An editor from Algonquin was going to be there, and I thought, just to see an editor from Algonquin was worth the money. I was blown away by what they were doing, how many people were there. It was fantastic. The following year I submitted a proposal to join the board, and I’ve been on the board ever since ― more than 10 years now. The most fun I have is meeting the new writers who are there, as well as authors on the bestsellers lists.
Nicole, did your father’s profession inspire you to pursue writing, or was this a career path you discovered on your own?
It was sort of something I fell into. My parents were always really supportive of whatever I wanted to do. I took piano lessons, and studied photography, marine biology, veterinary stuff for horses. But I always loved writing short stories; in elementary school, my stories were always longer and more complex than the other students’. I started writing my first novel as a teen, and I actually didn’t tell my dad for a while. I’m not sure if it was because I was embarrassed, or maybe a little intimidated. But at a certain point I realized I didn’t know what I was doing at all, but I wanted to continue so I asked him for advice. He never really pushed me toward writing; it was something I found on my own, and I was lucky enough to have someone who could provide guidance.
You began writing seriously in your early teens and published your first feature-length, a novel titled A Kingdom’s Possession, when you were just 16 years old. What was your writing process like at such a young age?
It was pretty sporadic at first. My first novel took a few years to complete. My dad always says that once you know you can write one novel, then you can write more. So I started getting serious and writing on a daily basis. The first draft was finished in two years, and then I heavily edited it. Oddly enough, my next novel took four months, and the next one after that took six months.
How have your style and creative process evolved since your debut?
I think my process is always evolving, and my style is always evolving, depending on new things I’ve learned and where my interests take me. The biggest thing between now and then is my use of language; it’s become more intentional and refined as I read more fiction and get a grasp for how to use language with intention. I’ve read so many books about writing and so many great works of fiction since then. When you’re passionate about your art, you always strive to get better.
What can you tell us about your latest book, Dead of Knight (published Aug. 9), which is the first installment in your Joined Trilogy?
It’s an exploration into the mind of a madman, basically. I covered a lot of topics, such as grief, guilt, emotional escape, the type of toll that love can take on people. In some ways it’s really heavy, but it’s set in a fantasy setting so I got to do a lot of fun world-building. I called it the ‘monster’ because it was such a huge project. It consumed a lot of my mental energy. I was always obsessing over the characters and the complexities of the plot. I’m more excited about this book than the work I’ve published in the past, so I’m thrilled to share it with everyone.
A lot of fantasy writers abide by a pretty strict set of guidelines to make their stories consistent and believable. How do you incorporate rules into your settings?
It’s kind of complicated. There are a lot of standard things. For instance, you shouldn’t really play with the laws of physics. But people are always pushing the boundaries within the fantasy genre. You always have to tow the line between what’s believable and what isn’t, and sometimes it’s hard to do that. Most of the stuff I write takes place in an alternate universe, but I try to avoid magical qualities and magical creatures. But that’s just me; every writer is different.
As student liaison for the PNWA, how do you help young people leverage their talent and realize their writing dreams?
I joined PNWA when I was 15, and signed the contract with my first publisher about one year later. In more ways than I can count, I can say my successes are because of my involvement with the PNWA. As student liaison, I work to encourage young writers to follow their passions just like I did. I provide support at the conference, and work to create more student benefits and programs within the organization. There are so many great opportunities available through the PNWA. Members get to attend classes that improve their craft, speak with real agents and editors who are part of the business, and meet other writers ― both bestsellers and newcomers ― who share their passion.
Name one ‘bad practice’ that up-and-coming writers should avoid.
TP: The main thing for me is that I see too many writers trying to write to the trend. They see a certain subject or style doing really well, and they think they can write the “next big one”. That’s a bad way to start.
NP: You never know when trends are going to change, and chances are if you notice a trend then you’ve already missed the boat. I also see a lot of writers at conferences who think less of themselves when they enter the business. They feel insecure when they’re submitting their work. Rejection happens, but the big thing to remember is that editors, agents, and publishers are in the business because of writers. For writers to enter the field with pride is really important.
What advice would you give to someone who has always dreamed of writing a novel or book of poetry, but simply “can’t find the time” to work on it?
TP: I have a quote I use all the time: “If you say you want to write and you don’t write, then you don’t want to write.” I was raising children, working and going to college at night, and I still found time to write. Get up early, eat lunch alone, go to bed late, don’t watch television. There are a lot of ways to make time.
NP: I liken it to sleeping, eating, or any other necessity. You make time to eat dinner, shower, and sleep, so you can make time to write. My dad’s always told me that if I wanted to be writer, then I should be one, and I’ve always gone on that.
Based on your experience, which is more difficult — writing a full-length feature, or getting it published?
TP: What’s more important? Writing. But it’s more difficult to get published. When you’re writing, you’re only going through yourself. Publishing involves a lot of gatekeepers. If you’re going with a large publisher, then you start with an agent who pitches it to an editor, and they work with internal marketing before they offer you a deal.
NP: Plus, the writing part is more fun, which makes it less difficult in a way. Writing has its own challenges, but publishing isn’t nearly as fun ― it feels much more like work, and you can’t rely solely on yourself to get it done.
Any tips for aspiring writers hoping to attract an all-star literary agent to represent them?
TP: I’ve always told people that going to conferences helps. It’s all about getting read. If you’re only sending out 10 pages and a query letter to a handful of editors and agents, it’s not the same as meeting someone at a conference who knows your name and remembers who you are when you submit work to them.
NP: You want the book to be as good as it can be, so good writing is always important. But you also need to make a good impression. A lot of conferences have “pitch sessions” where writers get the chance to share ideas with agents during an allotted time. Some of the agents refer to it as speed dating: writers have one chance to get people excited about their book. Your confidence as a writer is much easier to share in-person than in a query letter. Getting along with them is also important. You need someone who’s excited about your work.
How can local writers get more involved with the Seattle literary scene?
TP: [In addition to the PNWA], there are a lot of great local organizations: Whidbey Island Writers’ Association, Hugo House, Skagit Valley Writer’s League. There are also critique groups and college classes for writers to check out if that interests them. There are a lot of writers in Seattle, but there are also a lot of good writers here.
NP: There are also a lot of places in Seattle that like writers; bookstores, galleries, and other businesses are a great way to get involved with the local community. Writers groups also provide an invaluable support system; just having a few writer friends can make a huge difference.
What were some of the highlights from the 2013 PNWA Summer Conference (July 25-28)?
TP: You can’t be around that many writers and not have fun. The coolest thing to me involved the announcements they made this year for the contest winners; as the names were read, the announcement also included agents who were interested in the full manuscripts. Just by entering the contest and being a finalist, some of these people were asked to submit their work to agents.
NP: One guy even got his book published before he found out he was the winner in his category. An agent read his sample in the contest, she contacted him, and they signed a book deal before the contest results were even announced. Greg Bear was the keynote speaker, and he was so inspiring and upbeat. He had a good, happy vibe that carried through the rest of the conference.
Both Terry and Nicole will be attending the Whidbey Island Writers’ Conference, which will be held Oct. 25-27. In addition, Nicole is scheduled to make a 7 p.m. appearance at the Skagit Valley Writers League meeting Oct. 7. Both Terry and Nicole maintain official websites that provide more information about upcoming appearances, publications, and other scheduled events. You can also follow Terry (@tpersun) and Nicole (@NicoleJPersun) on Twitter.
For more information about workshops, seminars, and other activities sponsored by the PNWA, please visit that organization’s official website.