Jeff Gerke has been called the de facto gatekeeper of Christian speculative fiction. Jeff is an editor, novelist, publisher, cover designer, typesetter, fiction teacher, and Writers Digest author. He is best-known as the award-winning editor and publisher of Christian fantasy and science fiction works, including those put out by his own small publishing house, Marcher Lord Press.
You are a triple threat in the world of publishing: author, editor, and publisher. What prompted you to found Marcher Lord Press?
You could actually add a few threats, since I also do book cover design and typesetting. LOL.
Marcher Lord Press came from my frustration that traditional Christian publishing companies were not publishing much speculative fiction—and that what Christian speculative fiction was published didn’t sell well in the marketplace (with a few exceptions, of course). It finally occurred to me that the people who want Christian fantasy and science fiction were not the same people shopping at Christian bookstores. That was the key realization that led to MLP being born and taking the shape it has.
How do the three industry “hats” you wear influence each other?
They’re in constant flux, of course. So in one day I’m author as I write on a new fiction craft book for Writers Digest, I’m editor as I edit a MLP book or one of my freelance projects, I’m publisher as I do acquisitions work or communicate with my authors or record expenses, I’m cover designer as I tweak a cover for MLP or a freelance client, I’m typesetter as I typeset a MLP novel or freelance book. And then I’m taxi driver as I drive my kids hither and yon (since I work from home, I’m obviously “doing nothing” and can do this [grin]). I’m husband and father, etc.
Some might think this is a conflict of interest, but a couple of my freelance-editing clients have become Marcher Lord Press authors. I just make it clear that this is extremely rare, and that hiring me as a freelancer in no way makes it more likely that someone would be published through MLP. Most of my MLP authors never used me as a freelancer, and most of my freelance clients have not and will never become MLP authors.
The hats influence each other in other ways, as well. When I teach at writers conferences, I usually go as publisher of MLP. But if people like my teaching style, they might buy my writing books or approach me to help them on a freelance basis.
This issue’s theme is character. As a writer, what are some of your methods for character development?
LOL, at first I thought you meant the character of the writer. For that, ask your pastor.
I’m what I call a plot-first novelist, which means my stories are great but my characters tend to be flat. Other writers may be character-first novelists, which means their characters are great but their stories are boring. [grin] Plot Versus Character, my first WD (Writers Digest) book, begins with the creation of the protagonist and builds everything else around that. It is designed to help you strengthen the part you’re not naturally good at, so that your book is character-driven but also interesting to read.
For character creation, I begin with a Myers-Briggs temperament and then layer things on from there. Physical attributes, major life events, family and culture of origin, birth order, health, spiritual gifts, and many other attributes differentiate characters from one another, even if they share the same temperament at their core.
Then, with the character created, we craft the inner journey for that person in this story. The last major step is to craft a plot around that inner journey in order to amplify and externalize the issues the character is dealing with on the inside.
How do you determine in those first few pages of a manuscript whether the writer has developed his/her characters well?
When I’m reading a book for acquisitions purposes or doing an editorial review on a novel, I can certainly see a lot in the first 2 – 10 pages. I can see the writer’s overall level of craft. I can see voice and style and structure and the mastery of the elements of fiction.
Because of the nature of how you learn about someone (real or fictional), it usually takes more than 10 pages to be able to see how good the writer is with creating characters. It generally takes me a good 50 – 75 pages to begin seeing whether or not all the characters are sounding the same, behaving consistently with what has gone before, speaking in distinctive ways, and have realistic personalities.
What are some of the most common characterization mistakes you see from new writers?
Most characterization mistakes are from plot-first novelists. The character-first novelists seem to have character and characterization down pat. (Now, their stories may be snoozers, but their characters are delightful.) But the plot-first novelist presents characters who (1) all seem the same, just with different moods and roles, (2) are shallow stereotypes (the girl, the boss, the evil villain, etc.), (3) all sound and seem exactly like the author, and/or (4) behave in unrealistic and inconsistent ways (first he’s courageous and then, for no reason, he’s a coward).
Plot-first novelists often commit the sin I call character-serving-plot. In this, characters are forced to do things they would never do—because the plot needed them to do them. Like the hyper-strict environmentalist scientist who wants all trace of human culture removed from a pristine environment—but who then drops a candy wrapper on the grass. Would he ever do that? No. But the plot-first novelist wanted the creatures to smell the candy wrapper, connect it to the scientist, and eat him. Character-serving-plot.
If you know you’re a plot-first novelist, rejoice in how God has made you great with story. But then quickly avail yourself of resources that will teach you how to create realistic characters, because your fiction will always be hamstrung until you can bring your characters up to the level of your plots. (The same goes for you character-first novelists, by the way. Get help on creating satisfying, well-structured plots so your characters will be doing things that are interesting to read about.)
Is Marcher Lord Press currently accepting queries? What kind of story would you love to discover right now?
My acquisitions portal says I’m effectively closed to proposals, though that hasn’t stopped people from submitting. That’s sort of what I was going for: If you expect me to answer today, and if you were only halfway interested in MLP, keep looking. My acquisitions turnaround is atrociously slow. Way, way behind industry standard. But if you’re sure MLP is the only and perfect publisher for you, you may proceed.
In terms of subgenres within the umbrella genre of Christian speculative fiction, I’m eager to find good steampunk, vampire, and urban fantasy. I have some good candidates for those already, so we’ll see. But I don’t like saying I want one subgenre over another. What I want is Christian speculative fiction that is well written, well crafted, and makes me go, Whoa. That’s subjective, I know, but so is all publishing. I don’t care what subgenre it is—if it meets those requirements (and our other writers guidelines), I want it.
What are some mistakes to avoid when writing spec?
Probably the only one I can think of is trying to be too derivative of other, well-known speculative stories. Don’t tell me you’ve written The Hunger Games but with Jesus in it. Don’t try to follow trends. If it’s an incredible premise and it’s well written, I’ll want it even if prevailing wisdom is that those kinds of books aren’t “in” anymore.
For any writer with a complete manuscript, what are some ways to tell when he/she is ready to query?
I’d say that any writer with a complete manuscript is ready to query. You’ll finish the book and polish it according to everything you know to do. But then it’s time to throw it in the water and see if it swims. If it doesn’t, you can enroll in swim classes (consult a freelancer, perhaps; read a book; go to a conference) and then try again, either with that manuscript, revised, or with a new manuscript.
Many thanks to Jeff Gerke for participating in our column! For more information, visit www.marcherlordpress.com.
At five years old, Amanda G. Stevens disparaged Mary Poppins and Stuart Little because they could never happen. Now, she writes speculative fiction. Currently unpublished, Amanda semi-finaled in ACFW’s 2011 Genesis contest. She lives in Michigan with her addictions: Amazon.com and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.