Ten Plus Things about A.J. Clarke

I met AJ Clarke on twitter and we have been chatting back and forth since the beginning... so it's no surprise that we just kept on chatting well past the initial ten questions... and I didn't edit out a thing...

Indie or Traditionally published? - Tell us how this works for you…
For now I’m going the indie route. Someday I hope to go the traditional route, with an agent and everything, but publishing on Amazon is a much faster process. Like a lot of writers, I cut my teeth on fanfiction so I’m much more accustomed to fast-paced publishing and posting things myself. I actually like having full creative control like this, but I will say the biggest drawback to being an indie author is having to market for yourself. Not gonna lie, that part is a pain.

Plot or Pants?  Do you pre-plot your books, use an outline, fly by the seat of your pants or some combination of things?  How do you keep track of characters in a series?  Do you keep a journal of your characters’ statistics, such as hair and eye color, relatives, hometown, etc.
I’m in between, so Plants! I do write a full outline for every novella because there’s no way I could produce one per month without a blueprint. That said, sometimes a scene idea doesn’t occur to me until I’ve started writing, so I’m not afraid to stray from the outline a bit. But all the important plot beats and especially the ending are decided before I ever start my zero-draft.

As for how to keep track of everything, let me plug a program real quick. After completing NaNoWriMo in 2020, one of my “prizes” was an organization-based word processor called Scrivener. I seriously can’t recommend this program highly enough to all writers. You can organize chapters into folders with individual text docs for each scene, which allows you to move things around easily if you decide a scene needs to come sooner or later. There’s also a dedicated research section where I keep detailed notes of every character and location. Also, unlike Word, this program is a one time fee and after that you can move it to as many computers as you need. It’s been a lifesaver.

Tell us about your first… published M/M fiction/romance 
My first m/m romance book was “Daffodils,” the first book in my “Flower Shop Detective Agency” series. Both the book and the series are erotic romance, because I actually love writing sex scenes but I also love worldbuilding and knew I wanted more plot than yoru typical erotica story. I see that book as a “pilot episode” of sorts. The story is set in a world where some people have “Talents,” which are special powers a la X-Men or the quirks in My Hero Academia. Talents can consist of everything from becoming invisible to turning back time, and a hundred things inbetween. However, each Talent has specific limits and often comes with unpleasant side effects. I thought it was important to give these powers drawbacks, because you don’t often see that in media. The main couple, Sam and Eli, both have Talents though Eli doesn’t know how to control his very well yet. It was basically lust at first sight with the two of them (though that initial attraction does eventually grow into true love through the course of the series. There just wasn’t really enough room for that amount of growth in a 30k word novella).

Besides Sam and Eli, Daffodils also introduces us to the other members of the Flower Shop, including their mysterious not-quite-middle-aged benefactor known only as “the Chief” who Sam is actually in a purely physical relationship with at the start of the book. I don’t want to give everything away, of course, but the epilogue also hints at our first look at “the bad guys” as well: a gang of more nefarious Talent users. Think of them as a group led by Magneto meets Moriarty, basically.

 and then your most recent one..
My most recent book is actually book 7 in the same series, “Dandelions.” We’ve come such a long way since “Daffodils” that it still amazes me. The cast has exploded and now also includes an official police team of Talent users who are working with the Flower Shop agents against the gang (I’d be so lost without my notes on everyone at this point).

I’m doing my best to keep this spoiler-free, but it’s definitely a challenge. Essentially, at this point in the series the focus has shifted from just the city that Sam and Eli live in–and try to protect–to a more global focus. Eli was homeless when we met him in “Daffodils” and he’s not the only Talent user to be ostracized. It’s not hard to imagine that in a world like this “normal” people might be scared of people with Talents. So by book 7, we’ve reached a point where tensions have risen on a global basis. It’s funny because when I started I wasn’t even sure I could get four books out of my initial ideas for the series, and now there’s so much to address and fight for that I know I’m nowhere near done with this story.

And I’m proud to say that throughout all of this, Eli and Sam’s relationship has never taken a backseat to the action. I make it a personal quest to ensure I give equal time to both the romance and the ever-expanding plot, and so far I think it’s working out pretty well if I do say so myself.

Do you write full time or part-time?  
I write full time and am hoping to keep it that way because this is honestly my dream job. Basically, my tl;dr version of 2020 is that I contracted Covid-19 about 2 days before the entire world shut down in March 2020. I went on to develop Long Covid and had to leave my job–which honestly was for the best because that job had spent the majority of 2019 trying to kill me. It took most of that year before I finally began to recover and at the start of 2021 I was finally feeling well enough to work again. But I didn’t want to return to corporate America. A friend suggested writing romance as a joke, but the idea actually just stuck in my mind. I spent the next week researching and by the end of February I had a business plan. By March 2021 I had started writing Daffodils. And the rest is history, I guess.

If you could invite 4 people (real or fictional, living or dead) to a dinner party, who would you invite and what would you serve?
Ooh, let me think. Sherlock Holmes (he’d be an infuriating guest but it was honestly my first thought), Spock (another lively guest, I know), Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (author of “Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System,” “Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation,” and “Heaven Official’s Blessing”), and…KainĂ© from Nier: Replicant/Gestalt to spice things up between her foul mouth and her lingerie. ;) And since Spock’s vegetarian I’d probably serve Pa Jun or Korean scallion pancakes–seriously, they’re delicious. Eat more Korean food.

Something people would be surprised to know about you
I love trashy hospital dramas. Like, it’s a problem. I’ve watched all of ER and do a yearly rewatch of Grey’s Anatomy every summer when the season ends. These shows are not well written in any way, but I can’t get enough of them. (Although, I will admit, by season 3 of Grey’s Anatomy I’m always yelling at my TV because Derek is a garbage romantic interest, good lord. He did about one romantic thing for Meredith pretty much ever. I could go on, but let’s just say I wasn’t exactly heartbroken when they killed him off.)

Which character still pops into your mind to visit from time to time?
I’m assuming you mean character that I created, because otherwise the list would be endless. It tends to change from book to book but at the moment it’s Natalie. She doesn’t even come into the story until book 4, but she’s become part of the main cast since then and I adore her. She was one of the most challenging characters for me to write because of several factors, most of which are spoilers. What I can say is that I felt a lot of pressure to get her character “right” but I personally feel that I succeeded in that task, and maybe feeling that pressure is why she now lives rent free in my brain at all times.

Where do you write?  Do you have a routine?
For about 3 years before the pandemic, I worked from home full-time. There’s not a lot of room in our house, but my partner got me a standing desk in our front room and that’s typically where I write. I found it’s important to have a separate work space and I’m nowhere near as productive as I need to be just sitting on the couch.

As for a routine, I typically wake up at 8. Eat a light breakfast and do some stretches and then sit down to write. I have a set number of words I have to write every day to meet my self-imposed deadline of publishing on the 15th of each month and I write until I’ve hit that word count. Sometimes I go over if I’m on a roll and really want to finish a scene, but other times I don’t because it actually makes the next day easier to pick up where I left off rather than having to recalibrate for a new chapter. I work Monday through Friday because if I didn’t have weekends off I’d go crazy, though there have been a few books where I had to give up my weekend to meet my deadlines. I try to finish writing my zero-draft of each book in three weeks, which leaves week 4 for editing and, on of my favorite tasks, making the cover.

What are your writing goals for the next year?  The future?
My biggest goal for next year is to grow my fanbase, so basically be more active on Twitter and maybe finally get myself a dang website. This year was about getting the Amazon algorithm to recognize me, and I accomplished that. For the first few books I was unsearchable on Amazon, even if you put in my name and the book title. I had to give links for anyone to find my stuff. Now, though, I come up right away! So, mission accomplished! Now, the challenge to make this a sustainable way of living is to keep increasing my sales and page reads, which means expanding my fanbase. That’s honestly way harder than writing, but I”m going to do my best!

What’s the hardest part about writing M/M romance or erotica?
I love writing sex scenes and they actually come very easily to me. It’s part of why I chose this genre to plant my flag in the first place. The hardest part for me right now is that I’m only working on one series that’s centered on one couple, so I do feel a certain amount of pressure not to let their relationship become dull or feel like I’m repeating certain things too often. The last thing I do when I outline a book is make a list of the sex scenes, and more and more I have to sit there and thnk, “What haven’t I done yet?” It’s kind of a strange problem to have, and definitely not one that I anticipated. ^^;

What else do you want us to know about  you?
My favorite movie of all time is Pontypool. It’s an indie horror movie that’s sort of a zombie movie, I guess, but people aren’t infected by being bitten. Instead they become “zombies” for lack of a better term after encountering certain infected words in the English language. It’s a brilliant movie, honestly, and I watch it at least once a year (either at Halloween or on Valentine’s Day because the movie takes place on Valentine’s Day). Funny story, when I had first met two of my best friends we decided to have a few movie nights while we were getting to know each other and of course my pick was Pontypool. I love that movie so much that I often forget the more gruesome scenes even exist, and at one point I glanced at our skype call and saw them both half hiding behind pillows and was just like, “Well, either I just scared them off or we’ll be best friends after this.” Thank goodness it was the latter, lol!

What is the funniest scene you’ve written?
I don’t think I have just one, but they all include Lucy. She’s the one who gets to be sarcastic and spout one-liners and I honestly love her for it. She’s also the only member of the gang with a car or a driver’s license and she has extreme road rage so all of her driving scenes are hilarious to write because everyone else in the car is either so used to it they just don’t look out the windows anymore or are convinced they’re about to die.

What’s the hardest part about writing?
For me, the hardest part is often just getting started. Once I sit down at the computer (and stash my phone somewhere far away from me) I can just rock it. But until then I can come up with a million distractions to keep me from working. It’s part of why I tend to write in the mornings, because the longer the day goes on the more other things come up and then suddenly it’s dinner time and I haven’t written anything yet today.

Who’s your biggest supporter/cheerleader?
My partner, Greg, and my two best friends, Say and Sunshine. Every book is dedicated to the three of them. They’ve encouraged me since day one and always listen to me when The Fear starts to take hold (fear of not making enough money, fear of having to go back to a desk job, fear of essentially working for myself which is incredibly scary). I would not have made it this far without them.

What made you decide M/M romance was the genre you wanted to write?  Do you write other genres?
In the world of fanfiction, I’ve been writing m/m romance since I was 11. It’s just what I have always gravitated towards. Nothing against straight ships, I just like the gay ones more. You can’t tell me Sam and Frodo aren’t a thing, like, come on. Or Holmes and Watson. Or Kirk and Spock. Should I keep going? So it was a pretty natural choice to transition to writing original works featuring m/m romance.

I do write other genres, though under my real name (yes, A. J. Clarke is a pen name. Shocking, I know). I’ve had two short stories published in recent anthologies, one sci-fi and one fantasy. I’m also working on a fantasy novel that I hope to traditionally publish under my real name someday that isn’t romance at all. 

Where do you find inspiration?
I find a lot of inspiration from music. I am one of those people that tends to make playlists to write to and I always have. Certain songs just conjure up scenes in my mind and then that song is forever the soundtrack to that one scene every time I hear it.

For the Flower Shop Detective Agency, I took a lot of inspiration from anime/manga. Not to be a total nerd about it, but I’ve always felt like anime pushes the boundaries of genre a lot more than most shows or even books do here in the West. Not always of course, but anime often asks certain questions that I’m not sure I’ve seen anywhere else. Things like, what if clothes woven with alien fabric gave you powers? (Kill la Kill) Or what if a little white lie was believed by so many people that it actually manifested in the real world? (Paranoia Agent) Or what if we took a typical fighting anime but infused it with musical references and also went 2000% over the top with absolutely everything? (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure) Those are the stories that resonate with me the most because I, too, want to push the boundaries of what is and isn’t “allowed.”

What do you do if you hit a wall while writing?  How do you combat writer’s block?
Truthfully, most of the time I force myself to push through and hope I can fix it in editing. I’m very strict about my deadlines and I haven’t missed one yet. There have been days when writing isn’t going to happen for the sake of my mental health and I have to accept that, but I will make it up by working on Saturday or doing extra words the next day. That said, it can help to change up my current music rotation, or even go back to something I haven’t listened to in a while. Shower thoughts help, too. If I really feel stuck, I’ll try to focus on planning whatever scene I’m stuck on in the shower that night, and nine times out of ten I end up scrambling for my phone (thank god for waterproof cases) to take notes on whatever I just thought of.

What do your friends and family think of what you write; do they know?
Yeah, they know, haha. In the very beginning I felt this weird sense that I needed to keep this very hush hush. Somewhere around book 3, though, the embarrassment faded and I decided it was silly to essentially be keeping half of my life hidden. My parents know and support me–my mom is currently trying to work up the courage to read the first book but she’s basically the most vanilla person ever so she’s scared of the sex scenes lol! My partner, Greg, is also actually my editor and beta reader, so he’s read all of it and constantly talks my books up to our friends and neighbors. Everyone who’s actually read the series really likes it and those who haven’t are still proud of me for pursuing something I love. My hair stylist (who also knows what I do) actually told me somewhere around book 4 or 5 that she’d seen a huge change in my personality and just how much happier I seemed since I started writing.

What is your favorite thing about writing M/M romance?
Have I said the sex scenes enough yet? But honestly, that’s part of it. They come to me much easier than straight sex scenes for whatever reason. Or even action scenes. The more I think of it, though, I think the real answer is deeper than that. I think that m/m romance lets you portray male characters more realistically than in other mediums a lot of the time. I’m talking in terms of the things that we typically think men aren’t supposed to, like cry or openly show fear and/or vulnerability or just be people instead of walking stereotypes. Yes, I'm aware there are plenty of stereotypes within the m/m romance genre, just like any other, but even then there’s just something about two men in a relationship that seems more humanizing to both of them, at least that’s what I strive to bring out in my characters anyway.

How can we connect with you?
Right now the best way is on Twitter @theA_J_Clarke

Someday I’ll get my act together and get a proper author website like I know I should. At the moment, though, I’m just too much of a “starving artist” to justify the hosting cost. (So buy my books! j/k)