I am very excited to welcome Mark Engels on the blog today! Mark is the author of Always Gray in Winter, a clever and creative tale about a werecat named Pawly. Be sure to check out Mark’s website for some really neat artwork that was inspired by Always Gray in Winter!
Tell me about yourself:
As a boy growing up, I geeked out over trains and electronics. Main reason why I work now as an electrical engineer designing and commissioning signal and communications systems for railroads and rail transit agencies across the United States. But I’ve been a member every bit as long in various anime, manga and anthropomorphic fandoms. So I came to enjoy creative endeavors too—role playing games, acting, and, of course, writing. I was born and raised in Michigan, never far from the shore of one or another of the Great Lakes. Kept that trend going through moves following college to Minnesota and Indiana. Today my wife and son and I make our home in Wisconsin along with a dog whom I have to shove aside on the sofa whenever I sit down to write.
After having several articles published in rail and transit industry trade magazines, I somehow got it into my head to take up writing genre fiction. My writer’s group memberships include Allied Authors of Wisconsin, one of the state’s oldest writing collectives, and the Furry Writer’s Guild, dedicated to supporting, informing, elevating, and promoting quality anthropomorphic fiction and its creators.
What first inspired you to start writing?
One night testing signal systems on a rail transit job site, my book’s main character showed up and began slashing away at my subconscious. Without even doing me the courtesy of introducing herself. Jerk.
I tossed and turned all day long at the hotel trying to ignore her. Soon enough she told me her name was Pawly, and yes, she was indeed a werecat. One who makes a very convincing argument with fangs and claws, by the way! She wanted out of my head, and the only way I knew I could let her was to tell the world the stories she was sharing with me little by little. So I caved and began writing.
What encouraged you to keep going and get published?
My first task in writing Pawly’s story was to come up with an outline. It was HUGE. So much so that friends and fellow anime/manga fan fiction writers I sent it around to look at all but begged me “please don’t try to cram all this into one book.” They did tell me the story had legs, though, told me it was fresh and frenetic and forceful.
So I kept at it for a year or so until I had a draft manuscript. Then I joined a real-life writers group and realized just how much I had yet to learn about writing craft. Another year went by between implementing their useful critiques and the self-editing I was doing myself (after reading books on the subject.) But I knew I had a much better story than when I’d first started, knew I’d told it in a much more accessible and engaging way.
Until I started query agents and submitting to editors, that is. Racking up nearly ninety rejections—was the problem with my craft or with my concept? Because though I was eager to improve my craft, my concept was non-negotiable. The modern day remnant of an ancient clan of werecats torn apart as militaries on three continents vie to exploit their deadly talents—I had decided at the very beginning that’s what I was going to write about or I wasn’t going to write at all. One fine day I checked the Furry Writers’ Guild web site to find several new entries on their novel markets page. I queried a couple of them, including Thurston Howl Publications. After comparing offers from two markets, I signed with THP. Whose signed contract allowed me to join the Furry Writers’ Guild as a full member. And to check another item off my bucket list.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar?
A lynx, of course, whose eyes are thought to see all things (which comes in handy while reviewing construction plans and specifications, let me tell you!) And because they’re muscular furry packages of pure badassery topped off with tufted ears.
What do you find most challenging has an author?
Identifying and solidifying my authorial intent. By that I mean figuring out not only what I was doing but why I was doing it. I came to learn the hard way the book I had in my heart to write may well not be the book any one person had in their heart to read. Going back to my werecat concept, it became clear when agent and editors posted “no vampires, no werewolves” in big bold print within their submission guidelines what they were really saying was “no shifters of any kind.” I concluded they didn’t want to read such a story in this post-Twilight world in which we live, that they believed the reading public wouldn’t either. The paranormal romance imprints were still taking shifters, though. Only trouble was they rejected my paranormal sci-fi thriller too. Why? Not enough romance, natch.
So I had a decision to make. “Trunk” my novel and write something else? Oh, no no no. Pawly, brandishing fangs and claws, wasn’t about to stand for that. My writer tweep Hannah R. Miller (@HRuthMiller) boldly proclaims on her Twitter profile “I didn’t write these stories to become an author. I became an author to tell these stories.” From that point on my main consideration for agents or editors at publishers was are you going to help me get my story to its audience or aren’t you? That’s what prompted me to research novel markets via the Furry Writers’ Guild web site in the first place. And you know what happened afterward.
What is your favorite thing you’ve had to research for your novels?
Oh, geez. That’s like asking a pet owner with a houseful which one is their favorite. Uhm, all of them? So it was with me and my novel series. Oh, let’s see…Polish-American culture and cuisine. Poland’s Białowieża Forest. Maritime lore and legend the world over. Life as a serviceman (or servicewoman) afloat and ashore in the US Navy, the US Coast Guard and the US Merchant Marine. RV bodies fitted out onto a truck chassis. Traditional Korean marital arts. All of these things inspired the creation of my characters and the world they live in, werecats forced to live their lives alternately in the shadows and in plain sight.
What did you edit out of Always Gray in Winter?
Though my book is told in third person past tense through the eyes of numerous POV characters, before there were even more! Several prereaders felt they weren’t spending sufficient time in any one character’s head and ended up not caring about any of them. Though writing from all those myriad POVs was helpful for my better understanding my mains and my supporting cast, I rewrote a number of scenes into the one character’s POV I felt most important to the story at that specific point.
Like the car chase outside of Szczecin in which Jakub helps Dory and Niko escape the pursuing authorities was originally written from the POV of the young man driving the overturned truck, for example. Some of my best writing which my prereaders thought completely unnecessary. In the end that entire scene ended up going into “cold storage.” Unlike what Stephen King advocates, I don’t “kill my darlings.” But I reserve the right to put them on ice indefinitely. Whether or not I thaw them out later, who can say?
There was a lot more in my early drafts expositing the burgeoning relationship between Dory and Milda. But I ultimately decided such a subplot took away from the main plot too much. It bogged the story down with information unnecessary to move the main plot forward. Or to help us to know the feature characters like Pawly better.
What was most challenging about taking the scene/scenes out?
That uneasy feeling the reader will miss out on part of the story? That I was second-guessing my creative vision by taking stuff out? That I was filing down all the jagged edges of my story which made it winsome and wacky and wonderful, turning it into something round and rote and routine? I think any writer acting on feedback about what worked and what didn’t for a particular reader faces these same dilemmas. That’s where I believe being discerning about what feedback I took in and from whom really paid off. I came to trust their judgements to point out my blind spots, made so much easier because I knew they “got it.” And got me. I knew their suggestions would help me tell the best story I could. Taking sufficient time (sometimes weeks or even months) to stir over their advice and figure out the most effective manner in which to apply it, I believe I managed to do just that.
Tell us more about Pawly in Always Gray in Winter:
She had come so close. So close to exorcising the demons of her past, those which had taken her father from her. For he was the reason she and her twin brother Tommy had joined the Navy, why they had ventured forth into the world despite their Affliction’s effects on them. Now the same man Pawly believes murdered their father has set his sights squarely on her, her family and her lover. She first runs to protect them, but they end up rallying to her aid instead. After having come to rely on herself—and only herself—she comes to accept her dependence on them. And realizes just how much they all depend on her, too.
How did you craft Pawly into what she is?
Equal parts Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter franchise and Nene Romanova from the anime Bubble Gum Crisis 2040. Seasoned with more anime flair in the form of Megumi Morisato from Ah My Goddess! and Ryo Hayakawa from Princess Nine. But Pawly’s anthro form? Homage to Steven A. Gallacci’s lyncean gal Dr. Elaki Kalakahaii from his cornerstone-of-the-genre spacefaring epic Erma Felna, EDF.
What made you choose the setting for Always Gray in Winter?
Though I grew up in a Detroit-area Polish neighborhood, working on railroads crisscrossing Chicagoland allowed me to come to love the area. So I figured that Pawly’s family would make their way to an ethnic neighborhood like Jefferson Park after fleeing Cold War-era Poland. Though Pawly and Tommy were born in Virginia nearby their father’s Navy base, the family returns to Chicago right after Pawly learns that she’s…now, now, you’ll just have to read my book!
Where did the idea for Always Gray in Winter come from?
From the outline for a different story, actually, one featuring an all anthro cast. When I couldn’t use it for the purpose I had originally intended, I re-cast some of the characters as human. To help resurrect my original storyline the remaining characters became werecats, their struggle driving the story’s conflict—hostages in their own bodies and societal outcasts forced to hide in plain sight on account of their Affliction.
What authors inspire your writing?
Steve Gallacci, Stan Sakai, Reed Waller/Kate Worley, Hiroyuki Morioka, Sheryl Nantus, Brian Jacques, Robert C. O’Brien, Gene DeWeese, Ken Akamatsu, Yukito Kishiro, Kenichi Sonoda, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, Ken Wolfe, Watts Martin…
…among others, that is.
What are some tips you could give other aspiring writers?
“Cast not your pearls before swine.” Discern just whom you should entrust your work and your fragile ego to. And especially to whom you shouldn’t. Feedback on your work is crucial to help you improve, but take care to seek out good feedback from quality people. Avoid those who coddle you and those who beat you down. A critique partner, a beta reader, each member of your writer’s group—think of them like you would a coach or a teammate. You depend on them to identify and reinforce what you do well, to call attention to what you don’t, to suggest resources and strategies to address same.
And for the love of what is holy, do not take any one person’s success story as gospel. What worked for “them/there/then” may well not work for “you/here/now.” The same is true for whatever advice they may give you. I believe it’s in one’s best interest to solicit and take in feedback, but what they act on—and what they don’t—needs must be filtered through one’s authorial intent like I mentioned earlier. I’ll sum up with Bruce Lee’s wise words: “adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.”
What are you working on now? Can you tell us a little about it?
I’m back with my series outline, crafting the next book to tell Pawly’s story. A prequel actually, describing life for Pawly and her family while she and Tommy were Growing Up Werecat. Mawro and Hana, too, had to come from somewhere. Readers will learn their origins in this book as well. I’m about two thirds of the way through my draft and expect to finish up sometime around New Year’s.
From what I’ve been able to tell working with my outline, I’ll need at least one more book beyond that to tell the story I set out to tell—three in all. Whether I’ll need a fourth depends on just how much family backstory I want to show influencing Pawly’s present day. Stay tuned.
Can you leave us with an excerpt from Always Gray in Winter?
Four down. [Pawly] sniffed at the air, recognizing a familiar stink. Worry. One to go, I’ll bet!
She hopped atop the third story railing with an indulgent chuckle and leapt across the alley. Body tight to the building beneath the shooter’s position, her wannabe captor would have to lean over the edge to sight her in. That would take time, more than she planned to give him. This would end. Now.
Pawly took hold of the railing and twirled her body upward to close the gap between them. The weathered metal creaked in response to her acrobatics before it failed spectacularly with a tinny ping. She cursed and catapulted herself away from the wall with her legs. Forty feet above ground and losing altitude fast. Along with her confidence.
“Everyone around you will die, Pawlina,” boomed Blaznikov’s mocking voice in her mind. It had done so every day since her and Lenny’s detachment was torn to shreds. “Just like when you–”
A sharp pain accompanied the explosion from her memory while the sniper’s dart bored into the base of her neck. Pawly bit her lip to stifle a squeal and reached out toward a downspout an instant too late. She slammed headlong into the brick wall and tumbled like a rag doll to the concrete below. Cats fled in all directions from the stand of trash cans she upended, screeching in anger at having had their late-night snack so rudely interrupted.
With a long groan, she propped herself up to one knee. The damned streetlight at the end of the alley taunted her, spinning no matter how much she squinted.
No! Gotta keep moving! Mom, Tommy…Lenny…
Her arms hung from her torso as if made of lead. Gravity soon won out, and Pawly collapsed into a pile of refuse face first. She turned her head and smirked toward the hissing cat closest to her. “Thorry ta crath yer party, cuth,” she said before passing out.
More about Mark Engels:
Boyhood interests in trains and electronics fostered my career as an electrical engineer, designing and commissioning signal and communications systems for railroads and rail transit agencies across the United States. Along the way I indulged my writing desire by authoring articles for rail and transit industry trade magazines. Coupled with my long-time membership in anime, manga and anthropomorphic fandoms I took up writing genre fiction. Growing up in Michigan, never far from my beloved Great Lakes, my wife and I make our home today in Wisconsin with our son and a dog who naps beside me as I write.
I am a member of Allied Authors of Wisconsin, one of the state’s oldest writing collectives. I also belong to the Furry Writer’s Guild, dedicated to supporting, informing, elevating, and promoting quality anthropomorphic fiction and its creators.
A distant daughter. A peculiar device. A family lineage full of secrets. When werecat Pawlina Katczynski finally resurfaces, her location previously unknown to anyone close to her, the reunion is short of welcomed. Instead, she finds herself thrust tooth and nail—tooth and claw—into a feud between opposing werecat clans as her family and their enemies reignite a battle that has raged for years. Always Gray in Winter invites the reader to join the feud and see if blood is truly thicker than water…
Thanks so much to Mark for letting me interview him! I look forward to seeing what creative future works Mark will share with the world! Be sure to leave your questions or comments below! Thanks for stopping by!