By day, J. L. Gribble is a professional medical editor. By night, she does freelance fiction editing in all genres, along with reading, playing video games, and occasionally even writing. She is currently working on the Steel Empires series for Dog Star Books, the science-fiction/adventure imprint of Raw Dog Screaming Press. Previously, she was an editor for the Far Worlds anthology.
Gribble studied English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She received her Master’s degree in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where her debut novel Steel Victory was her thesis for the program.
Editor’s Note: this is part one of a three-part interview. Parts two and three will be published July 12th and July 19th, respectively. Also, this interview was originally conducted in March through June of 2016.
Now, to get started, I ask all of my interviewees the same starting question, and that’s this: how do we know each other?
Hi, Shara! We both attended Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction program. Our terms overlapped by a few years, and I’m so glad that gave us the opportunity to meet. My earliest memory of you is that your first residency was the year we all gave ourselves Battlestar Galactica names. I was Officer Dualla and you were D’Anna Biers. I have equated you with the badass Lucy Lawless ever since.
Badass Lucy Lawless? I’LL TAKE IT. Hell, why don’t I cosplay that more? I’ve totally got the hair and the jawline… just not the muscles.
I’m glad you brought up Seton Hill. Back then, it was a Master of Arts, which has now become a Master of FINE Arts in Writing Popular Fiction. I never went back for the “F” in my MA. Did you do that, and if you haven’t, would you consider doing that, considering this point in your career?
I did not go back for the elusive “F.” I think the WPF program has evolved into more of a focus on using the degree to teach in higher education, which I have no interest doing. I am an editor at heart, and getting a terminal degree in a creative field would not help my day-job career as a medical editor. My goals are to continue supporting medical research, working on my fiction series, and freelance editing for very specific projects that are close to my heart.
Can you talk a bit about editing? You say you freelance: is that fiction or medical or both? I can see how editing fiction helps you as a writer, but what about the medical side of things? Do you utilize medical research for your fiction?
While I enjoy medical editing, it is definitely what I do to pay the bills. Fiction editing is my first love, so those are the sorts of freelance jobs I take. However, I feel like the basic knowledge set I have acquired after editing journal articles about everything from spinal cord injury to traumatic brain injury to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has improved my storytelling, especially as a fantasy author. Too many times, injury (both physical and mental) is either not portrayed realistically or completely brushed aside. I cringe when I see characters receive blows to the head and wake up later with no ill effects, both on screen and on the page. I am also challenging myself with a PTSD storyline later in the Steel Empires series because I am constantly amazed when heroes are put through the wringer book after book with no lasting effect stronger than the occasional nightmare.
So tell me about your Steel Empires series. You started your debut, Steel Victory at Seton Hill. What do you think the program did that helped you complete this book, get it published, and get this series started?
At the very least, the SHU WPF program gave me the writing foundation I needed to boost my confidence that writing a full novel seemed possible. Before that, I had stuck with short stories and novellas that always seemed a bit off in comparison to what I was reading that had been published professionally. Though I was an English major in undergrad, there had never been a focus on creative writing, so I missed a lot of the basic craft information that other incoming students had already learned. Having a mentor at Seton Hill who both believed in me and pushed me helped a lot.
Getting published was a different matter. I was committed to telling the story I wanted to tell, despite the fact that the mainstream fantasy genre was not interested in publishing it. After graduation, I submitted to agents with no success. Then I went on hiatus and focused on building my medical editing career. It wasn’t until I found a publisher that was already known for cross-genre fiction that I brushed off Steel Victory and took the leap (Dog Star Books is the science-fiction/adventure imprint of Raw Dog Screaming Press). I fell in love with my world all over again, and with my editor’s blessing, started cranking out the sequels.
I remember reading Steel Victory before you graduated SHU. One of the criteria in order to graduate is to have completed a novel that’s of publishable quality. Can you talk about what, if any, changes you made to Steel Victory that transformed it from your thesis to the published novel that’s out there today?
The biggest change was the length. My SHU thesis clocked in at 103k words, but my publisher had a hard limit of 90k words. This forced me to really go back and evaluate what was going on in each scene of the book with a more critical eye. I wrote most of Steel Victory as a “pantser” — writing by the seat of my pants and never really planning what came next. In the intervening years, I have realized that I am very much a “plotter,” who needs everything completely outlined before I even start the first draft. That added experience really helped me polish everything and cut it down to the required length while maintaining the core plot and theme elements. The final novel ended up around 87k words, and I’ve been doling out the less atrocious deleted scenes on my website at www.jlgribble.com.
The other major change was influenced by my growth as a fan of SF/F. I am passionate about diversity in the genre and changed some sexes, races, and even sexual orientations of both major and minor characters to create a more well-rounded world. I was pleased, however, to see that the original version of Steel Victory passed the Bechdel Test before I even knew what that was.
You studied under two mentors at Seton Hill. Who were those mentors, and, as a daydream, if you could study under ANY author, living or dead, who would it be?
My mentors during my time at Seton Hill University were Timons Esaias and Diane Turnshek. I was incredibly lucky in that they were the two mentors I needed at that point in my writing career. Tim taught me a lot about the craft of writing, and Diane did a lot of help me shape my voice. Both of them helped me push the limits of my storytelling.
[As for a dream mentor], I would love the chance to sit down and discuss world-building with Catherine Asaro some day. Her Skolian Empire novels have been a huge inspiration to me, especially the way the series weaves together the lives of so many different family members while still pushing forward the external conflicts that are all interrelated. Getting more insight into how she accomplishes that would be a huge benefit to my own writing.
If I remember correctly, you’re one of the people who turned me on to Asaro’s work! Which makes me curious: do you have any plans for a space opera series of your own?
No immediate plans, unless some other story ideas I have take a turn for the unexpected! I think most writers are also fans of genres or sub-genres that they might never write in, and this is one of mine.
While it’s out of print, can you tell me about the anthology, Far Worlds, and your role in it?
Far Worlds was the brain-child of a buddy from my undergrad days, James Fadeley, who had previously edited a few other speculative fiction anthologies with another friend of his. Based on feedback on those collections, he knew that it was important to bring more diversity to the field, especially in terms of gender. So I was brought on as a third editor, and as a resource to intentionally solicit submissions from other female authors. Women ended up at about one-fourth of the contributors, which also included published novelists K. Ceres Wright and Heidi Ruby Miller. Not bad, but there’s still a long way to go!
In terms of editing the anthology itself–it was a ton of work, but I learned a lot! Both about myself as an editor and about how to handle all sorts of writers. My only regret is that I wish we had been able to pay pro rates to our authors, because some of our submissions were stunning. Sadly, we were about as indie as you can get and couldn’t afford to do so.
Do you think there will be a 2.0? If not, do you dream of editing your own anthology one day and if so, what would the focus be?
While there will probably not be a second installment of Far Worlds in my future, there is another anthology project I’ve been bouncing around in the back of my mind and with some other people. Speculative fiction again, of course, because that’s my true love. Right now there are still a lot of moving parts to consider (and permissions to get from other people!), so that’s really all I can say right now.
Next week on July 12th: J.L. Gribble talks about her favorite urban fantasies, how gaming has influenced her Steel Empires series, and how she’d like to see her fiction adapted one day (spoiler alert: it’s not what you think)!