Interview with M.O. Muriel, author of The Land of OCKT

While I really enjoyed The Land of OCKT, I kept thinking that the humor seems directed at adults, but the action at a younger audience. What is the target audience for The Land of OCKT?
9 +. I did a bit of marketing to library groups and Boys and Girls Clubs when I lived in CA in 2009. Although the younger kids loved the katz and their antics—and the 5, 6-year-old military kids especially perked up at the katz wearing NVGs and the such—it wasn’t until the 9+ crowd that all the social commentary and satire literally had heads nodding in appreciation—like: ‘I get it, nice,’ ‘these authors aren’t talking down to us,’ and ‘I’m in the know.’ Think Jim Henson’s The Muppets. Everyone though he was bonkers when he and his crew insisted their product was actually for adults, not kids. The kids just naturally tag along, because they’re ‘little adults.’ No one wants to be talked—or written—down to. OCKT is like this. It’s all-inclusive.

Was it easy working with your husband on the project? How did you divide the labor? We’re actually co-authors. OCKT was originally Juan’s brainchild, his absurdist utopia, built on random comments like, “In the Land of OCKT, women don’t wear those colored shoes.” Somehow, the antics of our pet ferrets got involved, which happened to mix with the general absurdity of some elements of Juan’s most recent deployment on a Military Transition Team (MiTT) at the time, and things took off.

As for coming up with ideas, we firmly believe OCKT is written in the ether, and we’re little muses channeling the fun. First, we do an initial 2-3 page outline of the whole story. This is usually done under a slew of blankets and bed sheets pitched over the living room furniture like a tent, while we’re watching Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, or something of the such, and a bag of McDonalds—because, like Harold and Kumar, we can’t find a White Castle! One thing we know when we start off is that each OCKT book will always have 13 chapters—this is concrete. 13 is our lucky number. Once we have ‘The Outline,’ we then zoom in and do a detailed outline for every chapter. For this part, our ritual is to hoodwink our OCD by going out to eat, relax, and brainstorm. Times this by 13 chapters.

Exit the fun easy part. After outlining, I get to do all the actual writing. I write each chapter to our outline specs. Then we go over each chapter, one at a time, with me reading it aloud to Juan, and him either approving off on it or taking a sledge hammer to it—he’s a hard sell. Rinse. Repeat. Next chapter. When the first draft of the whole book is written, I read it aloud to him in sessions—usually while he’s pensively smoking his tobacco pipe like Stonewall Jackson (because that’s his Iraqi call sign <laughs>), and I’m crossing my fingers that I’ve done a good job. I get the revisions, apply them, read it aloud again, t’s approved, and then it’s off to my alpha for editing and proofing.

Of course, somewhere in there, I’m also illustrating the whole thing.

I read this on a b&w Nook and the graphics didn't display all that well.  Can you describe your method of illustrating?
Multi-media collage. The backgrounds are 3D templates I fabricate using a mixture of photographs, textures, and digital paint. The characters are sketches I’ve inked, painted in, scanned, and overlaid onto and integrated into the 3D backgrounds. This mix of styles only works for OCKT. Similar style mixes would be found in movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It’s done on purpose. Originally I was thinking along the lines of Dr. Seuss-type illustration, but this digital mix was an out-in-out inspiration for me. So much so, that it whisked me out of a 10-year artist’s hiatus where I literally hadn’t drawn a stick figure since High School, and just went to town. I also couldn't explain why this style mix worked so well for OCKT until I had completed the book. I have an eye for presentation: OCKT is both for kids and adults—a bit of real, a bit of imagined. That is why it works. More importantly this is also the way the world must look like through the eyes of a ferret, of course!
To answer the question about b&w, OCKT illustration is designed for the new color e-readers. Just like any color illustration transferred to b&w, some details and aspect of the presentation will be lost. But because these are digital creations, designed specifically for monitors, when it comes to e-ink readers that would otherwise be void of illustration in the first place, the b&w versions work to enhance the reading experience as ‘extra,’ a ‘bonus.’

Why don't we meet Princess Rosepetals? Does she symbolize anything? How about the Queen of the Shirpees? Ah ha, you do meet them both—in every book (or, at least that’s the idea). Without divulging too much of the plot, they are unobtainable beings—part of the serial aspect of The Land of OCKT series, part of the healing and salvation of the world and ultimately certain evil characters. And both play a fundamental roll in why and how The Land of OCKT exists at all, as well as how Peeje’s character changes ‘along the way,’ outside of his adventures themselves.

To answer your question literally: Peeje is our flesh-and-blood carpet-shark, ‘Peeje.’ The Queen of the Shirpees is our ferret, Shu-Fu. And Princess Rosepetals . . . she’s our daughter, Ptalamy Rose Muriel. You wouldn’t believe the politics ferrets and children play! If ferrets could speak English, you would be personally living The Land of OCKT story, not just reading about it.

Any plans for a future collaboration with J.L.?
Oh yes. Were halfway through the second book as we speak: The Land of OCKT and the Impassable Patches of Darkness. I’m probably forbidden from saying this, but woops . . .! I see up to 10 books in the series, with a spin-off trilogy to make it 13, featuring the two latest additions to our business of ferrets: the mad scientists, Flash and Mohinder, Time Bandits!

How do you balance your family life and writing/illustrating? I’ve cloned 13 versions of myself—ha! No, seriously, it’s tough. Our daughters are my 1st priority. My kids and my full-time housewife job—which includes holding down the fort while Juan is deployed or at one of his myriads of military schools—constitutes my 24/7 job. And I never ‘come home’ from it. Really, I’m doing the equivalent of the single mom thing. Writing and illustrating comes after that. So, in other words, I may not be the most prolific writer, but I am like the tortoise from The Tortoise and the Hare: I just keep plodding along no matter what, reaching my goals. Each 3-4K chapter takes me about a week to write, and each illustration is the same, give or take.

Why did you decide to publish through Smashwords? It is user friendly, and although right now the platform is more of a direct-your-friends-there sort, it acts as an umbrella for all the retailers, so you don’t have to go messing around with formatting fifty different versions of your book, or opening up fifty different accounts to monitor everything. Besides, it’s still a new platform. If it had stock, I would invest early, so it can take off! As far as Amazon goes, that’s an actual market, and because it’s still the biggie, hands-down, we just went live there, directly, on 1/23/12.

A lot of readers of are themselves writers. Could you tell us how you have marketed The Land of OCKT so far and what your future plans are? Anything you would have done differently based on your experience? Anything that has worked particularly well? Honestly, my winning both Writers and Illustrators of the Future has been a big help, both for PR and for networking with the pros in the business. E-publishing is still very new. Traditional publishing is finding that they can’t dictate to authors anymore, or decide for the reader what they can and can’t read. As long as you’re honest with yourself and are ready to put your writing up in front of the world (readers will tell you what they think; there is no hiding stinky writing), Indie publishing gives you the freedom to reach your readers directly. And it doesn’t cost a dime once you take the time to learn Smashwords’s user-friendly Style Guide for proper formatting. The only thing worth investing $ in is a good cover artist.

I’ve also been active on FB, set up an OCKT page, and I frequent forums like the Writers of the Future. Basically, for me, it’s about getting my presence known, being personable, networking, and creating a place for people to obtain more info once they’ve read the book. Only certain authors are cut out for blogging. That is not guaranteed to get you any sales.
Right now, this e-publishing/independent publishing business is so new, I can’t say what I might be doing wrong—yet—but I am learning that the biggest part of making sales through indie publishing is to put as much “good quality” product up as possible—yeah, don’t just throw stuff up “just ‘cause.” Readers are smart. They want quality. And the more you can give them, the more you make your presence known. The more you can sell, the bigger a platform you can begin to create. It’s easier for a reader to stumble upon a book of yours and catch up on your backlog. So, even though I’m a fresh face to this, just beginning to garner a few sales here, a few sales there, I’m also just coming out of the gate, too. Amanda Hocking was receiving peanuts years in advance of her millions. I can’t think of any better way to promote yourself than by simply sticking to your craft and writing, writing, writing.

Last year you won The Illustrators of the Future Contest, and this year you won The Writers of the Future Contest. Tell me about the experience. How do you think the wins will affect your future? In all honestly, I have no idea how this will affect my future—although I have some good ideas about what I would like for it to do to affect my future. This part is out of my hands, because it’s a big nexus of possibility, but that doesn’t prevent me from being driven. Totally. Completely. It’s what got me the double wins in the first place. In my experience, Writers and Illustrators of the Future is the only venue that acquires stories, and illustration, based on merit alone and no other factor. That is both personally and professionally liberating: to know that I’m not competing with big names, and that the judges are basing their decisions on whether or not they actually like what they read, rather than on the industry standard: “Will this sell?” “Will fit in with my anthology?” “How does this compare with X Big Name Author, whose name alone will sell my anthology?” It all about the writing. No strings attached.

As for me? I plan on going to the Writers of the Future Workshop with product (i.e. novels) and an open mind. Illustrators of the Future prepared me for the experience in general. It revealed to me that I was born at the right time to e-publish The Land of OCKT for this new generation of color e-readers and interactive media—strangely you just don’t find mid-grade or YA books illustrated in color, like picture books, in the traditional world. And it broke the ice for me with some of my favorite author judges. I can’t wait to go back on the writer’s side and rub elbows!

Your winning story for Writers of the Future, as well as your honorable mentions, all came from a single science fiction project. Can you tell me about it? I actually submitted 8 times to the Contest. 5 were Honorable Mentions, 2 were rejects, and my winning story is a rewrite of one of those rejects. Shows you the power of revising! Out of the 5 Honorable Mentions, 3 were self-contained chapters of my military-themed post-apocalyptic SF, Shadow Gate— a totally different product from the whimsical Land of OCKT, by the way. Oooh, are we pitching loglines, here? Sweet:

“In the year 2513, new enlistee on the First Assault Strategic Team Shadow Gate, Lysanda Turienn, is determined to         discover what the Thirteen United Clans—survivors of the Great Destruction—have in common with their arch enemy, the telepathic Shadowman Faction, and what they're hiding about the centuries-old apocalypse itself. “

I had been marketing this—first in a trilogy—to agencies for years without so much as a peep. And thinking this meant that I must, therefore, be an abject failure as a writer, I entered a chapter into the Writer’s of the Future Contest at the behest of my alpha reader. Got an Honorable Mention. After the shock, I figured this was luck, coincidence. So I entered two more chapters, one then the other. Both got HMs. It gave me perspective. It told me that the coordinating judge, K. D. Wentworth, did indeed like what she was reading. That I was actually in the top 10 percent of the many thousands of people who submit to the Contest each year. Of course, this is when I realized that I needed to submit an actual ‘short story’ to a short story contest to win it <laughs>—I’m a novelist by nature. So after a few trials, I won.  My winning story is its own unique, completely contained short story, which, in other words, means it that can’t be a novel. 

That said, I’m still going to the WotF workshop with Shadow Gate as one of my ready-to-publish novels. Like I said, I have product. I don’t know what will happen. But I have an open mind.

How do you see your writing and illustrating developing? Will you favor one over the other? Writing. Plain and simple. I’ve wanted to be a career novelist since I was seven. I’m open to whatever the fates have designed for me. The illustrating comes in to enhance my products—that, and I don’t have to ‘pay’ myself for the service! Illustration will apply to all my illustrated mid-grade eBooks, as well as to cover art for everything else—sf/f short story, novelette, novella, or novel—I e-publish. I won’t settle for anything short of the best product, best total package, I can produce. As much as I tout quantity, I am far more for quality. So, as far as future eBooks are concerned, you can expect only truly publishable writing, and killer eye-grabbing covers. That is the plan. No crap to add to all the white noise already out there.

What's the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it? I am a novelist by nature. I actually had to teach myself the short-form to win the Writers of the Future Contest. It’s quite convoluted when I think about it: I’m a novelist who learned to write shorts, in order to win a critically acclaimed short story contest, so that the industry might take me seriously for writing novels. Does that even make sense? <laughs>. Not everyone who wins a short story contest, even one like WotF, is cut out to be a novelist. In fact, the reason that some authors are such brilliant short storytellers is because they’d be horrible novelists. We’re talking about two different sides of the craft, two different types of storytelling. Me? I’m coming at it from the other direction. In fact, it’s still hard for me to write shorts sometimes, because once I get an idea in my head, I want to dedicate nothing less than an entire universe to it. I’m all about the novels.

What new techniques and/or artistic mediums would you like to develop as an illustrator? Hehe, up until a few months ago, I was working on an ancient-of-days basic photo-doctoring program called Picture It Premium 10. I mean, I literally rendered my illustration for the WotF Volume 27 story, “Maddy Dune’s First and Only Spelling Bee,” like a cavewoman, on this program, in 12 days, racing against the due date for my daughter, Aredthel. And to boot, I did it without a tablet or digital pen, like a Bamboo Fun pad. True, to this day, I still use my fingers on my laptop’s mouse, like I’m finger painting. People think I’m weird—or just insane.

Anyway, Picture It may be user friendly, but it doesn’t have layers like Adobe Photoshop. A few months ago, my alpha finally got me into the 21st Century by introducing me to Adobe Photoshop Elements. Oh la! The time it saves! Just to be able to save things on layers and not have to cut, and re-cut, and re-cut, and scream when the program crashes and I’ve lost all my work, and . . .

I’ve seen Cliff Nielsen’s portfolio, one of the Illustrator’s of the Future judges (he does all the website art for WotF, and he rendered the Vol. 27 cover). He does exactly what I inspire to do on Adobe, using my digital multi-media collage style. Up until I saw a demo of his at the IoTF workshop, I thought that the kind of art I did was a dirty little secret. I thought this because some people who aren’t in the field think that doing digital art is cheating. It’s actually quite the opposite of cheating—well, using Poser is cheating, IMHO, but I don’t use that program; it’s very obvious when artist ‘dress up their dolls.’ Digital art, on the other hand, is just a new set of tools to work with to achieve your vision, and it comes in all different styles and forms. I actually shed more blood, sweat, and tears rendering digital art, and inventing new techniques to achieve an increasingly more fantastical and integrated look, than I do rendering illustration in acrylics or pen & ink.

Some writing gurus, Stephen Pressfield among them, believe you cannot succeed as a writer until you decide you will be a professional and dedicate yourself to it entirely. Any thoughts? True. You put out that kind of energy, you believe it, and you can become it. Only you can achieve your dreams. No one else can make you write or be a good storyteller--no creative writing teacher, no professor, no best selling author. This is a skill you have to learn on your own, get a feel for on your own terms. Anyone can have good ideas, but unless they can learn to transcribe those ideas in a meaningful way for readers, those ideas are lost.

I mean, some people have greater aptitudes for learning ‘the skill’ than others, but this is not a talent you’re born with. Personally, I’m at the slower end of the learning curve. But I haven’t given up yet, even when people are telling me that my dream is not lucrative, or it’s folly, or I’ve spent enough time already and I’m wasting my time and other’s resources. There is no formula for breaking out. There is only persistence.

You told me you are a self-taught artist. Tell me how you got into it and went from novice to winner of the Illustrators of the Future 2010. In a nutshell, art was my first talent. Up until college, I would write novels, illustrate them, and even compose their soundtracks (yes, I used to write music and I was a singer and actress). When I hit college, I had to focus on one creative outlet. Writing seemed to be the most potentially lucrative, and it’s been my greatest love—though, unlike the other talents, it’s a skill I’ve had to learn.

Anyway, 10 years later, when confronted with the prospect of illustrating OCKT, I took out my closeted art talent. I found that I could mess around with digital art programs, use this as a new medium. Then I literally illustrated the first OCKT book, submitted some of the art to the Illustrators of the Future Contest, got 2 Finalists doing so, honed in on the judges feedback, which was looking for more adult-oriented integrated pieces, created three appropriate adult sf/f pieces, and blam. That’s the long and the short of it.

Imagine what might happen if I ever dusted off the song writing, or the acting! I don’t have time for them, unfortunately, but I was equally as good at them as I was art. Maybe in the future there will be a Music Writers of the Future, or an Actors of the Future, and then I can start submitting <laughs>.

Your husband is going to retire from the military soon. Does he have more stories up his sleeve? Oh my god, don’t even get me started. Washington is looking to roll up contractually promised military retirements into 401 Ks, so instead of staying in past retirement like he might have done, he’s looking at possibly leaving at the 20-year mark, so as not to get screwed out of retirement (be Grandfathered in). Now he’s all obsessed with eventually getting out and becoming a merc for Black Water or some such. Talk about living on the wild side! That's dangerous work, people! I guess it comes from watching too much A-Team as a child <laughs>. Tell me I won’t have more fodder for my military SF then—which, by the way, he refuses to co-author, since he lives it. He’s more the absurdist humor children’s books type. Probably a good thing, anyway; OCKT may be fun to co-author, but I think he’d kill me if we tried to co-author anything serious in tone. Me? I’m the one walking around with an ordinance bag full of his tactical manuals, weapons specs, and all the other military goodies he brings home. That, and I salivate over his shoptalk.

Your stories often illuminate the humorous--and frustrating--side of bureaucracy. Is this a personal peeve? Could be . . . (wait, are we being audited???).