Interview: Jessaca Willis
This week we sat down with Jessaca Willis, author of the dark fantasy series The Awakened and other fantastic stories. Join us as we talk about balancing life as a new mom and author, accidentally using a marketing tactic called “reader magnet,” and how much joy she has found just being a part of the Twitter #WritingCommunity!
CJ: Good morning!
CJ: Absolutely! So let’s start with something easy. Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself?
Jessaca: You say easy, but I swear this is always the most difficult question to answer. Okay, let’s see. My name is Jessaca, I’m a mom who writes dark and epic fantasy novels when I can find the spare time to do so. I studied social work for my undergrad and graduate degrees, and I work at a high school as a mentor program coordinator. I’m also a bit of a nerd, but again, mostly for epic/dark fantasy stuff: Game of Thrones, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, RWBY—anything that takes me out of this messed up world and puts me smack dab into another one.
CJ: Talking about oneself is difficult, but we’re always asked about it! What is it that defines fantasy as dark and epic?
Jessaca: I’m sure everyone has their own way of defining it, but the first thing that comes to my mind is it has to be bloody (or at least something with a high body count) and the world-building has to be immensely detailed. I also think dark fantasy has a higher tendency to analyze some more disturbing or gruesome aspects of the real world, like, for example, a character grappling with grief. Sure, other fantasy genres can have grieving characters, but I think in dark fantasy you’re more likely to find a character where that’s their defining trait or primary conflict. But that’s just my opinion.
CJ: Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anything with that specific description before, though it makes sense now that you’ve explained it. You said you work at a high school. Are you able to balance time at your day job, being a mom, and writing, or is that something you have to constantly work at?
Jessaca: You know, it’s taken me a while, but I can confidently say that I have found a nice balance. Before my kiddo was born, it was a lot easier to find time to write, but I was awful about prioritizing it. Now that I have kids, I’m much better about utilizing the time I have. I’m able to write/edit for at least one hour every day, sometimes two if I can do a couple 15-minute “word sprints” throughout the day. But, you know, there’s always an ebb and flow. Some weeks are harder than others. I just try to allow myself some leniency.
CJ: Just like with anything in life, if it’s important we’ll find the time to do it. You’ve got six books out, three of which are available for pre-order, so I’d say you’ve mastered the art of prioritizing!
Jessaca: Yeah, those pre-orders are a new thing for me. I find I work better with deadlines, so I thought I’d set a few. We’ll see how they go! So far, I’m on track!
CJ: Let’s take a moment to talk about your first book. What was it that inspired you to write it?
Jessaca: Yes, let’s talk about that first book. What a journey that one was! So, it would have been about eight years ago now, I was wrapping up the last episode of True Blood and I couldn’t find anything else that was piquing my interest. As much as I love vampires, I was kind of done with them, but I couldn’t really find anything else that was supernatural/fantasy and unique. Everything was vampires, werewolves, and ghosts. I wanted something different, and I thought to myself, “Surely, there are other types of supernatural beings out there to be written?” So I started writing ideas for powers.
Mind you, I’m in grad school at the time, an accelerated one-year program, so it’s not like I had an abundance of free time that I was looking to fill. But the more I jotted down ideas, the more I couldn’t stop. I didn’t even have characters yet, or a story, but I knew I wanted to write whatever book these superpowered people belonged in.
Fourteen re-writes and five years later, I published it.
CJ: I think those make the best stories. The ones that aren’t around that an author creates because they cannot find the next book they want to read. Those stories are the most unique. From what I can tell, you’ve got a pattern of putting out a short story and then a longer novel. Is there a reason for this?
Jessaca: Sort of! But it happened organically. While I was writing The Awakened (the first series), I took a break from the main books to write a character piece from one of the four main characters’ points of view. I didn’t really understand her at the time, so I wanted to see what her life was like when the world first collapsed. When I finished writing it, I realized that readers might be interested in reading it too, so I knew I wanted to publish it too, I just wasn’t sure when.
When I started flirting with the idea of self-publishing, tackling the short story seemed easier than the first full novel, so the short story went live first. And, since it did fairly well, I started writing other short stories.
All of that being said, I later found out that this is actually a marketing tactic called a “reader magnet”. The idea is that shorter stories in the same world, allow readers to sample it before diving on in. So, now I’m more intentional about what it is and why I’m releasing it that way.
Jessaca: Mostly I just got tired of querying. I received some good feedback from agents about how to query since “supernatural dystopias” were becoming a dying trend and that would make it difficult for an agent to take this series. I figured I could either keep querying, maybe for years, until I finally found an agent interested or that trend became popular again, or I could just do it myself.
Now that I’ve started self-publishing, it’s kind of difficult to imagine doing it any other way. I love to autonomy I have over my story, my covers, my pricing, when I run sales—all of it! I think I’m too much of a control freak to traditionally publish.
CJ: Oh man, I know how that is! Now, tell me… how did it feel to have a copy of your first book in your hands?
Jessaca: I can’t describe the actual feeling, but I definitely did one of the squealing-while-jumping moves. I love holding one of my books in my hands. I just got a batch of Puppets Dream printed (the second book in my first series), and I felt just as excited. I’m curious if the feeling will ever fade, but I’ve heard from other authors (with like 50 books out) that it doesn’t.
CJ: I’ve been able to experience that feeling twice myself and I have to say, it’s probably more exciting because I’ve been able to continually publish instead of just doing a one-off. While reviewing your Amazon page I noticed that there are only a few months between publication of each book. Is that a part of that marketing plan that you were just talking about?
Jessaca: Definitely, or at least, it’s supposed to be. I’m still learning the ropes of being self-published, but what I’ve learned so far is that readers are more inclined to grab your books if they know you are consistently publishing. No one likes to find a book they fall in love with, just to find out that there’s no publication date for the next one. Plus, for all the aspiring self-publishing authors out there, readers are more likely to continue a series if there’s a pre-order link ready for the next book when they finish the first, especially if your books are coming out slow.
The new Reapers of Veltuur series I’m working on, I’m trying to publish one book every two months (and have all the pre-order links ready within the next couple of weeks). In theory, this will help maintain reader hype, and assure them they’re not about to start a series that won’t be finished for five years.
CJ: Wow, so are you writing novels in two months or putting out shorts?
Jessaca: Each of the books in this series will be about 70k words (which I think is about a 200-page novel). To be fair though, I wrote the first book, Soul of the Crow, last year while I was still on maternity leave. So I had a head start.
CJ: Still, that’s a lot to write with only a 1-2 hour window per day. I’m completely jealous!
Jessaca: Oh! I should have clarified. My 1-2 hour per day was pre-quarantine. Since high schools are closed, I’m working from home, which saves me a 2-hour commute each day, so I’ve been writing more like 3-4 hours daily. Which is definitely helping with these word counts!
CJ: Which do you find more difficult to write, the shorter or the longer stories?
Jessaca: Definitely shorter. I’ve written a few other short stories that aren’t published yet, and that’s because every single one of them has evolved into this multi-book series. I can’t contain these worlds or characters! I honestly don’t know how people write short stories!
CJ: (laughing) I understand completely. I have a novel that is being edited that started off from a prompt book that was only supposed to be the length of an essay, but the characters would not shut up! Now, before we wrap up, let’s talk a little about Twitter. You’ve got a pretty large fan base there. What do you like the best about using Twitter?
Jessaca: Twitter is my go-to place for author-to-author connection. I’m sure that’s not how I should use it as a platform, but that’s sort of how I built it. The #WritingCommunity on Twitter is MASSIVE, and always eager to give feedback or support. I’m also a huge fan of the Twitter pitch parties that happen every few months. They’re so much fun to take part in, or just to support other authors who are pitching their books (and finding new books that I can’t wait to read).
CJ: I think the #WritingCommunity of Twitter is perhaps the most supportive community I’ve ever come across and am so glad I am a part of it. Thank you so much for talking with me today, Jessaca. I really enjoyed our time together!
Jessaca: Thanks CJ! I had a great time too. This was a lot of fun and I’ll definitely be sending some other authors your way.
You can connect with Jessaca via these avenues:
Jessaca Willis Author