A thousand years ago, witch Morgan LeFey brought war and chaos to the Four Houses. The aftermath was a treaty that sent each House—witch, vampire, werewolf, and fey—into isolation from the others. When Rose LeFey’s aunt Sorcha embarks on a dangerous quest to finish what her ancestor started, she steals blood from different houses and binds Rose to the werewolf Dar. Instead of giving in to the pull of her own blood magic, Rose fights back. Now she and Dar must work together with members from other houses to end the nefarious dark magic and escape Sorcha’s control—while also battling their desires.
This past December, author Dee J. Holmes released AN INHERITANCE OF CURSES for the Amazon Kindle marketplace. Yet this wasn’t the story’s first appearance. Here Holmes talks about her journey tackling the pen name conundrum, how tabletop gaming has influenced her writing, and her newfound craft of creating just the right cover art for herself and others.
LST: What initially inspired you to create the world of the Four Houses?
DJH: I had the nightmare to beat all nightmares. The kind where you lurch out of bed in a cold sweat and can still feel the marks where the creature chasing you plunged their long, razor-sharp nails into your chest.
It was awesome.
If you’re me, once you confirm you’re not dead, you give an excited cheer and wake up your poor, beleaguered spouse to tell him you’ve discovered your next story. Because that creature was gloriously, irrationally creepy and thus the perfect villain for a book.
Here I am, rocking into drafting Book 3, and she’s still helping me unearth the best kind of story.
LST: The ebook launch saw several changes from its initial paperback release, including a new pen name and a brilliant new cover. What factors influenced your choices with this new step forward?
DJH: My decision to re-release and change my pen name emerged from a creatively mixed salad of external and internal factors.
Getting author fan mail is the best—pretty much the ultimate validation for the hours of blood, sweat and whiskey we put into every book. (Okay, maybe the whiskey is just me. But you get the idea).
Getting fan mail for an author that isn’t you? More than once? Not so much.
When I started my independent publishing journey and bought my domain, I was the only DJ Holmes around. By the time I published my book the first time around? There were three. One of whom had published extensively in my primary genres of fantasy and sci-fi.
Well, I thought, s**t.
My friend who’d helped guide me through the first (very limited) print release of version one rightly pointed out I now needed to change my author name. However, I’d invested so much in the idea of “DJ Holmes,” had spent hours sorting out my newsletter and author profiles, and couldn’t conceive of something I wanted to do less. Many mistaken emails and a prolonged hiatus from all things authorial later … it didn’t seem so bad.
Conveniently, I’d also come to the conclusion that revising and re-releasing was the right decision (for me). Yes, common wisdom is to publish and move on. And that’s usually right. In my case, however, I’d never felt right about the editor I had for version one. So every time I got a negative review, it just reverberated in my already vocal chamber of self doubt. Solution? Make the changes. Go the distance. Embrace the full weird and properly mad-word-scientist of “epic new adult urban fantasy, with romantic elements.”
LST: Tell us about your publishing journey and decision to go with Amazon.
DJH: Amazon. It’s there?
Okay, okay. Amazon has its flaws (a number of which I’m currently contending with—insert dramatic sigh), but it’s also the single easiest way to publish and find readers as an emerging independent author.
In truth, I hadn’t wanted to self published. Not when I started writing, nor for the first ten plus years of my writing career. I didn’t want to be alone in the wilderness, so to speak, and I still struggle with that feeling. But after a decade of “Close But Not Quite” and “This Is One Of The Best Submissions to Cross My Desk, No Thanks” I came to the conclusion I’m too weird to fit cleanly in a genre box, but too normal to draw publishers to me like a strange, alien beacon flashing with neon lights on a stormy shore.
While hybrid publishing remains my ideal, I’m embracing the particular joys of independent publishing. The freedom to flex, to explore, to march blithely into new spaces between genres, is a gift to be both treasured and nurtured.
LST: Which tool in your writer’s toolbox did you find the most valuable? Any tips or tricks you’d like to share?
DJH: My most valuable asset has to be my trusted and completely amazing critique group.
I firmly believe that the best art can’t happen in isolation. Sure, I like to draft largely in seclusion, need to let characters and scenes ripple through my head and sort themselves into a shape of a story. Then I need voices I trust to weigh in those words, help me see the problems and put the story into greater perspective. No matter how strong a draft, it always gets better after they review it. Seriously. I wouldn’t have managed half of what I’ve accomplished without those badass women encouraging me and kicking my ass as needed (a bit like “lather, rinse, repeat”, just with more angst).
As for tips? Forming a strong critique group takes time—and it’s 100% worth it. Build trust. Tell the truth—but never as a weapon. Think live-action Cinderella: “Have courage and be kind.” Cheesy, and accurate. The goal of a group is to build each other up. Do that, and you’ll find real value.
LST: You’ve mentioned roleplaying games as a contributing factor to your work. How did this influence your writing choices?
DJH: Oh, my nerdom runs deep. And yes, tabletop RPG played a huge role in developing the world of Four Houses—it’s how I first developed the world. My love of RPG didn’t influence my genre choices or the type of story I wanted to create. But it hugely impacted my sense of character balance and approach to crafting believable, fully-fleshed out magical systems (and realms).
My husband and I (and various friends throughout the years) play using one of the more complex gaming systems (HERO System), where you have to balance your character’s skills with equal “disads”—aka emotional hang-ups, mental health challenges, physical challenges, etc. Because no one’s perfect. And characters who lack an internal journey are desperately boring (to me). I mean, what’s even the point? (I know, there are spaces where this is the thing. But that’s why those spaces aren’t mine). And I had to backup my magical ideas with concrete, “rollable” characteristics and clear systems.
In short, RPG forced me to put my Houses in order.
LST: What part of the writing process did you find the most difficult?
DJH: Revision, revision, revision.
Drafting can be hard, and I wrote the first version of this book before I’d nailed down my extended outline routine. I had innumerable plot holes, character arcs, and other issues to fix. That’s why it took me nearly eight full rewrites to nail down what the book truly needed to be. And that process happened over the course of six years and in-between writing four other books. My skill set grew hugely over that period. So, weirdly, this book is both the worst and best thing I’ve written.
But what it ultimately boiled down to was striking a balance between respecting experienced advice and trusting my gut.
LST: And you’re an artist to boot! Not only do you create your own covers, you’ve now made a business of it.
DJH: Well, I’ve ALMOST built a business of it. And my website showcasing all my shiny works of recent days is ALMOST done—though I do have contracts kicking off and am definitely gaining some traction. I like to think I’m bringing something rare to the cover design market: original, custom art that is created from scratch for each story, and thoughtful, personalized series branding.
There are artists out there that do commision work for covers, but there aren’t many. Others will sell the rights to use their art upon request. More commonly, authors work with designers who use stock art assets to create those covers—which, don’t get me wrong, can look completely fantastic and involves no small amount of skill. However, stock art is often overused, by both independent authors and publishers alike. I believe that original art is a way to ensure a book has a completely distinct look.
After giving up on my art for a number of years, I picked up a pencil again just about two years ago. Since then, I’ve happily discovered I’m rather good at covers and series positioning—more importantly, I adore helping each story’s uniqueness shine through carefully, personally created covers.
For now, anyone interested in checking out my portfolio and talking about custom art is welcome to contact me through djholmes.com or my FB author page: @DJHolmesAuthor
All images in this post are examples of Holmes’ work.
LST: When can we expect the next instalment of Rose and Dar’s adventures, and what lies ahead for our band of heroes?
DJH: March! And not any March, the one coming up in a couple short months. Book 2.5 will be out shortly thereafter, with the Book 3 rounding out the series in September.
I watched Star Wars A LOT as a child, and whenever I find myself straying from my goals, I hear Gold Five’s voice in my head, demanding I “stay on target.” What can I say? Davish Krail knew what he was doing. When you’re planning to blow up a Death Star—or break through on Amazon—you got to your eye on the target. Both feats carry roughly the same penalties, and feel akin to aiming a photon torpedo at an opening the size of a womp rat while racing down a narrow trench full of enemy cannons.
I’m pretty damn excited to see where that trench takes me, and how big a party I can throw with my fellow authors when my squad of rebel heroes reaches the end.
It’s gonna be a blast.