Writing is hard.
Writing and publishing a book is harder.
Writing and publishing a book with over twenty other authors?
And yet, this was exactly what C. VanDyke set out to do with the Tales from the Year Between, first with Achten Tan: Land of Dust and Bone, and once again with Under New Suns.
I was able to take some time to talk with him about the history of Tales from the Year Between and Skullgate Media, as well as some of the Contributors to Under New Suns here.
You can also read my review of Under New Suns here.
What exactly is The Years Between?
TALES FROM THE YEAR BETWEEN is Skulgate Media’s flagship anthology series that exists at the intersection between Dungeons & Dragons and a story around a campfire. Part family, part cult, and part world’s largest writing prompt, each volume in the series is set in a different, unique world–a world that didn’t exist before the anthology itself. Twice a year it gathers a disparate group of authors from all across the globe to collaborate in shared world-building and creative writing. Contributors participate in a week-long “game” to create a shared canon of people, places, events, and themes. From this chaotic melange of ideas, each participant then creates their own stories, poems, letters, and even recipes, all set in the world they created together.
How would you describe the world in Under New Suns.
Under New Suns is set in the far future of our galaxy — it’s a space opera, so a lot of the classic tropes are there: Space Marines, a United Planetary Alliance, aliens and humans and plasma cannons. But there’s a lot to the world that you don’t find in traditional sci-fi: space-sharks, six-dimensional funk music, and a sentient space-ship that gives birth. The Ship is really “the world” where the book as set; all the stories in Under New Suns follow an eclectic crew who finds themselves trapped inside a living spaceship on the far side of the galaxy.
How did the idea for The Years Between anthologies come about?
I came up with the idea on May 27th, 2020 while quarantined in Brooklyn during the Covid-19 pandemic. I missed playing D&D with my friends, and although I was getting a lot of writing done while being stuck at home with his kids, I wanted to do something social. I’d just been recruited to be a contributor to Renee Gendron’s Beneath The Twin Suns anthology, and I started thinking about what I’d do if I had an anthology. I’d had an idea of running a massive game of this indie-world build building game called The Quiet Year for years, and it seemed like a good time to try it out. I put out a call on Twitter hoping for 10-15 participants, and in under 24 hours had more than 30.
I spent the next week home-brewing custom rules for The Quiet Year, as the game is designed for 4 people sitting around a table, not 32 people spread from Dubai to Australia. And four months later we had Skullgate Media’s first book–Achten Tan: Land of Dust and Bone.
Who is at the center of the anthology? Is it mostly yourself, or is it a group effort?
I suppose I am nominally “at the center” of it, but only in the way that a Dungeon Master is “at the center” of a game of D&D–as an organizing referee. It truly is a group effort. Besides myself, there are five member-owners in Skullgate Media (Chris Durston, Debbie Iancu-Haddad, Diana Gagliardi, and Colleen Storiez) and they all helped plan and execute Under New Suns at every point of the process. Then there are the 22 other contributors, all of whom brought their own ideas and sensibilities to the project. While there needs to be someone at the center to keep everything organized and moving forward, I really do try my best to make sure that everyone involved has an equal voice in how each book in Tales From the Year Between develops. Just like in our first book, Achten Tan, there was no way I could have predicted how Under New Suns turned out. And that’s what makes it so exciting.
Who decides what authors become involved with the project, and how can authors apply?
The first book I took everyone who wanted to be involved–I just put out a call on Twitter, and my ambitions were very limited. I figured we’d have fun and the final book would simply be a free PDF hosted on my website. I got extremely lucky, as despite zero vetting I ended up with 30 incredible writers.
The process has changed since then. When I started there was no Skullgate Media — it was just me. As Volume 1 wrapped up, however, I knew if I wanted this to be sustainable I’d need partners for future projects. I asked some of the contributors who I felt had really connected to the project–and whom I’d personally connected with–to join me in forming an indie-publishing company. Shortly before we published the first book Skullgate Media became a full-fledged LLC.
Currently, all five members of Skullgate Media are part of the selecting authors. It’s a different process than other anthologies. With your typical anthology, the publisher puts out a theme or premise, then writers submit final drafts of stories. The publisher then has a relatively straightforward job of choosing the pieces they want in the final book. But with Tales From the Year Between, our contributors don’t even start drafting their stories until they’ve been selected, so we need to be confident their writing is up to our standards. We also need writers who are flexible, comfortable thinking well outside the box, and willing to both take on and give up ownership over what they create. In the old middle-school teacher comment, we need people who “play well with others.”
So our process is less one of submissions and more of an application to join a temporary club. We ask writers to send in a sample of their writing and answer a few questions about why they want to be involved. Then all of us at Skullgate read through the applications. We make our own personal rankings, then meet on Zoom to share our thoughts. In the end, we come to the decision on who to invite together.
We’re just starting the process of planning for Volume 3. Applications will be open soon, but right now if anyone is interested, they can visit YearBetween.com to find out more and sign up for our newsletter. All we know about the next book is that it will be pirate-themed.
What advice do you have on working with a team on a creative project, now with two anthologies complete?
First and foremost–have fun! Collaborating can be a blast, and it’s a literary example of the whole being greater than the parts. Also, most of us aren’t making enough money on these projects to make them worth stressing over, so if you aren’t having fun you aren’t doing it right.
Second is to be open to new ideas. Even if you are the founder and creator of a group project, things are going to play out differently than you expect. Embrace and celebrate that.
When heads butt, what techniques do you use to calm the room and find common ground to achieve your creative goals?
Honestly, we’ve been extremely fortunate and that hasn’t happened a lot. The very nature of Tales From the Year Between means it’s flexible and wide-open to nearly every idea the creators can throw at it. I like to say it starts with a game where it’s impossible to break the rules. I’ve also adopted a motto for the series (in Latin, because I’m pretentious) — Factum Est Bonum. It’s all good. There have been a few times when ideas have butted heads or there have been some ideas I didn’t think fit the current project. In that case, I have pulled my “founder, president, and editor-in-chief card,” but I try to avoid that.
Do you have any advice you’d give a group looking to publish an anthology?
See the advice about projects in general–have fun! Practically speaking, give yourself more time for everything that comes AFTER the writing than you expect. Editing, proofreading, layout, publication. Everything takes time, and with dozens of people involved, it takes even more time. If you want your book to look professional–and you should!–take the time to make it as perfect as you can.
What is the most important thing to consider first when building a new world? Alternately, what should an author who is stuck look at first?
This may be obvious, but I think all the best imaginary worlds are the ones firmly rooted in ours. Whether that’s Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Terra from Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness or Mieville’s New Crobuzon, at the core of their fabulous details and imaginary peoples is a deeply human element, one that speaks to society and struggles. An engaging new world is one that lends itself to conflicts and themes we can all relate to. So if you’re stuck, just look around you.
What makes an imagined world come to life for you personally?
Small details and a lived-in backdrop. When reading a fantasy series, I’m less interested in a complex magic system with diagrams charts than the food people eat, the clothes they wear, the shops that line the city streets. For sci-fi, it’s less about the nature of the faster-than-light drive and more about the music they listen to, the asteroid bars where the characters meet between adventures. Alternatively, I love those vista moments, when you get a glimpse at what feels like a fully developed history and world off in the distance. My favorite moment from the Lord of the Rings is when they are at Weathertop and Strider mentions Gil-Galad, then Sam sings three verses of a song. Strider cuts him off and tells him the tale is too dire for a dark night, and the reader is left longing to know how it ends. That not knowing makes it more poignant than if you’d gotten the entire tale then and there. It leaves you believing that the world has a real, lived history.
Are you working on any individual projects?
Oh, I’ve always got way too many projects going on. I have a series of cyberpunk noir novellas that I’m self-publishing. The first two installments, Memory & Desire and Out of the Dead Lands are available on Amazon. I’m writing book three now and have outlined a total of 8. I’m writing a series of middle-grade fantasy books aimed at reluctant readers. I’ve written the first four books, and the first book will actually be published by Kindred Press this coming November. I’ve always got a few short stories going, some of which are currently available in anthologies and some of which will be published in the next few months. I’m querying a YA sci-fi romance, Love Songs for the Robot Apocolypse, and an adult supernatural thriller, Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magic. My weirdest project is probably the erotic choose-your-own-adventure solo-role-playing game I’m working on.
What do you enjoy about publishing, and what do you struggle with?
I never planned to get into publishing other people’s writing, and when making Achten Tan I was surprised how much I liked it. It really hit me when a few of the contributors were posting on Twitter and Facebook how excited they were to finally be published. It took me a moment to realize they were talking about the book I’d put together–that I had helped them realize a life-long dream. Up until then, I’d just thought of it as “this little thing I was doing,” but to many of the writers involved, it was their first time seeing their name in print. It was incredibly rewarding. So I love that I can do that for other people. I also love working with so many talented writers. It’s humbling to see how much unpublished talent is out there, and I’m honored every time they trust me to help bring their words to the world.
What I struggle with is promoting the books. I became a publisher about sixth months ago, and I feel I’ve good a good grasp on most of the logistics–from recruiting submissions to making a cover, laying out a manuscript, getting an ISBN, every part of publishing a professional quality book–but I haven’t figured out marketing. The one thing that makes me feel better is that as I ask around, it doesn’t seem that ANYONE in indie-publishing has figured it out. The barrier to publishing is so low that the market is saturated with self and independently published books. Standing out in the crowd is hard.
What do you love about writing, and what do you struggle with?
I love nearly everything about writing. I love outlining, drafting, revising. A lot of writers complain about the process, but every stage of it brings me joy. I love getting the stories that live in my head out into the world. Even if I never make any money at it I’ll still keep writing, as ideas come to me and demand to be written.
What I struggle with is time. I’m a full-time high school teacher and parent of two, so finding time to sit and write isn’t easy. And now Skullgate takes up some of my time as well. That’s a labor of love, but it is one more responsibility that needs my attention. The hardest part is making the time to get my finished projects out there–whether that means querying agents or self-publishing. I love the crafting, but find everything that comes after the story is finished tedious.
Any other advice or words you’d like to share?
I feel I’ve talked about myself a lot, so I want to make sure I shout out my fellow Skullgate members, Chris Durston, Diana Gagliardi, Debbie Iancu-Haddad, and Colleen Storiz. I may be listed as the founder and president on the website, but we really are a team and I couldn’t do this without them. Chris and Diana produce our podcast, Sounds from the Year Between, which is fantastic. Colleen and Chris both edited Loathsome Voyages, our recent horror anthology, and are invaluable as thought partners to bounce ideas off of. Debbie runs our nonsense writing prompt on Twitter, #AchtenWrite, which is a fun way to join us online. She also headed up an AchtenWrimo group, where half a dozen writers from Volume 1 used the world of Achten Tan as the center to NaNoWriMo projects. Debbie wrote an entire novel, Speechless, set in that world, and we’re hoping to publish that later this year. And Diana is a general logistics and enthusiasm marvel who helps the world-building game run smoothly and always has great ideas