When we did the review, we reached out to the authors, and we were lucky to hear back from A.J. Cerna, so here is our interview with him!
A word with the Authors:
Jim Newman: Congratulations on another fun Djinn Tamer adventure! How does it feel to have wrapped up the Bronze League section of Jackson’s journey?
- A.J. Cerna: It honestly feels like they’re still a lot more to go. It’s exciting, but it is ultimately just one small leg of a journey, and Jackson’s biggest challenges are in front of him. Yes, I think we gave him a satisfying three-arc journey so far, but there is so many more questions we’re excited to answer about the future of this franchise. That being said, I think Derek and I both agree that this third book managed to bring an emotionally-fitting end to the trilogy.
Jim: Any word on when we can see the next book available for pre-order?
- A.J.: Right now, Derek and I are hard at work on the rewrites of a novel in a LitRPG duology with Aethon Publishing. It’s called God Mode, and it follows a character who is playing a World of Warcraft-type MMORPG. It’s gonna be a BIG book. Evolution was about 110k words, and the first draft of God Mode was 220k words. So that’s taking up a lot of our bandwidth right now.
We do plan on getting back to Jackson’s story, but there are some other passion projects that we want to touch on before — projects we think our readers will love. But we are ready to start development on another Djinn Tamer novel soon — one we’ll be collaborating on a different author with. This one won’t follow Jackson, but will expand the world even more.
All that being said, keep your eyes peeled for the Djinn Tamer: Evolution audiobook. We just released Rivals a few weeks back, so I expect Evolution will hit some time in the middle of the year.
Jim: There are some new and interesting beasts in this iteration. How do you decide which Djinn to include in a story? Do the monster designs and concepts come first or are they created concurrently with the plot?
- A.J.: Perhaps to the chagrin of some readers out there, we mostly take a character and story-centric approach. It starts with a question of “what is this story about?” We wonder not only what’s going to happen in the plot but what Jackson’s emotional journey is going to be. Then, from there, we hash out a rough multi-page treatment. Once we agree on a general direction, we work together on potential Djinn that we want to include, along with basic details.
Luckily, by Book 3, we had already created a large stable of Djinn we could use (including ones we hadn’t introduced in other books), so most of them were pulled from those on a needed basis. But it’s a mix. We had come up with a bunch beforehand, but there were some that needed to be created for this book. But they were all in service of the story. Never was it Djinn first, story later. At least not yet. It’s always possible that can change down the line on a book-by-book basis.
Jim: What were your key influences when designing the far-flung locale of Lombardia? And will we ever get to see it again?
- A.J.: Lombardia was definitely a mix of places for us. First off, the place where the gang lands and hires the ferry was greatly inspired by Cusco, Peru. My wife and I took a trip there a few weeks back and were infatuated by it. As far as Lombardia itself, to me it was a mix of the Andes along with the archipelagos of the Pacific ocean. I’ll admit I’ve never actually visited the archipelagos, but there’s something really cool about there being a series of close-together islands, and I was excited about the prospect of them having to visit multiple islands on their journey.
Had this been a video game, I would have loved for them to visit at least a handful, but alas, just a couple was all we had time for.
As far as whether or not we will see it again, while there are no SOLID plans to revisit it (as in, we haven’t decided, “oh, we definitely need to come back for this reason”), I would be surprised if we never saw it again. But you never know.
Jim: Jackson has matured a little since the first book, no doubts about it. Is there a level of challenge writing a character who is, essentially, growing up before our eyes?
- A.J.: I think this was probably our biggest challenge. As readers, there does tend to be a disconnect between what we think a character should do and what a character does. A lot of times in young adult fiction, we get frustrated when kids don’t do that thing we would obviously do if we were 100% objective specimens. But the fact is, we’re not objective. And we’re especially not objective when we’re young. As such, we really wanted to have Jackson make plenty of mistakes we think a teen would actually make, given his circumstances.
Obviously, not all readers were fans of that, and Jackson’s immaturity was a sticking point for a lot of readers. And understandably so. I think we may have been too adamant about portraying an accurate teen that we lost readers along the way, so it was difficult finding that balance. But, in my eyes, I think it did ultimately accomplish what we wanted.
Personally, I wanted Jackson to start off naive and rash and to be humbled by his experience in book 1. In fact, I like it when a main character loses a lot. You learn a lot more from your losses than victories, so we wanted to make sure he was sort of shaped and molded by his failures. What we end up with is a more mature person by the end. Of course, he’s still learning, but hopefully seeing this change has been rewarding for the readers.
Of course, we have to offset his failures with victories. After all, as a reader, you want to make sure he has enough wins that it doesn’t feel like you’re experiencing a negative spiral. Derek was great at keeping me in check with that stuff. I’m very much the Vince Gilligan between me and Derek, where I want to forge the characters in fire, and Derek was very much the film exec going, “Okay, calm down. This isn’t Game of Thrones, buddy.”
Long story short…yes. It’s a balancing act between making a character interesting and flawed without making him annoying to the reader. Easily the biggest challenge in writing, period, in my eyes.
Jim: Something I’ve wondered about a lot; Being that there are two authors for this series, what does that process look like? Do you each work on a section individually and piece them together? Or does one provide a draft for the other to do rewrites with?
- A.J.: Mostly the latter. So, to start with, we both come up with a bunch of ideas for the overall plot. We go back and forth, mixing and merging ideas until we come up with a pretty good idea of what the story will consist of. We want to make sure there is basic potential for a traditional three-act structure as well with an emotional arc for Jackson. It’s especially important that the emotional arc is there, otherwise a book can fall flat.
From there, I put together a multi-page treatment — maybe 3-5 pages long or so. It’s broken down into acts and has the broad strokes of the story.
Derek gives his notes, I make corrections and changes, and then I hash out a full outline. These generally clock in at 40 to 60 pages or so, depending on the length of the story, so they’re pretty in-depth. Derek looks it over, gives his notes. I make necessary corrections once again, and then he dives in as drafter of the thing.
From there, I generally do two to three rewrite passes. These tend to be pretty extensive, and in two books, it required some heavy restructuring. I know in the case of Evolution, the end of the second act needed some overhauling. But, again, that’s all normal. Ironically enough, I think Derek is a bit of an “underwriter” when it comes to drafting. I know a lot of writers get too descriptive in first drafts and then have to cut back a lot, but I think Derek is the opposite. He’s not too descriptive, mind you, but as I make my way through, I somehow add about 10% more words to the draft — probably due more to structural additions and fleshing out of character motivations. In the case of this latest book, I think I added an extra 10,000 words or so.
Anyway, then Derek does one final pass before we send it off for copy editing. In the case of our next book, God Mode, we switched up the roles, with Derek doing the outlining and me doing the drafting. I’m interested to see how that turns out, but it was a great challenge.
Jim: Do you guys have any advice for the aspiring authors out there? Something that you wish someone had told you when you started out?
- A.J.: Straight up, just start. Just write. That whole 10,000 hours adage is true. You can think about writing all you want, but until you actually exercise that muscle, it won’t get any stronger. Don’t worry about the stories being bad. Don’t worry about them being precious. Don’t think too much about that one idea “being wasted” on practice, because ideas are cheap. Execution is where it’s at. If this is truly your passion, you’ll come up with plenty of other ideas along the way. So, just write those stories. Writing gets easier once you start. It’s hard to gain creative momentum if you haven’t even started.
Also, study story structure. Read screenwriting books and watch movies. Lots of movies. Obviously, read a lot of books as well, but movies are a lot quicker to get through, so you can learn a lot by just watching a whole lot and breaking them down. A lot of times when we’re younger, we spend a lot of time trying to craft SCENES. We get these mental images in our heads of these SCENES playing out and having an emotional resonance to them. But the reality is that unless it’s all in the context of an actual story, it won’t matter much to the reader.
Looking at story structure really puts you in tune with that. Teaches you the importance of setting a goal and motivation for the character, and in getting the audience or reader to care about what’s happening. Once you can get them to care about the character and their goal, your stories instantly become stronger.
And, don’t just watch amazing classics. Watch crappy shovelware. Watch Disney Channel Original movies. Seriously, go on Disney+ and just watch that shovelware. Not because it’s bad, but because many of them adhere so heavily to traditional three-act structures, so they’re easy to learn from. If you read about the three-act structure and then watch a ton of those movies, you’ll learn quickly.
Jim: Have you guys tried Pokemon Sword and Shield yet? Any thoughts on them?
- A.J.: I honestly only played about 10 hours or so before I called it. It’s not a BAD game, by any means, but it’s pretty much like every other game. It’s too safe. As someone who played Blue, Yellow, Silver, and then X, I was really hoping the years I didn’t play would make it more exciting. But it didn’t. It felt like a quarter-step from Game Freak when it should have been a big leap, in my opinion.
I’m realizing more and more that what I want from this franchise is a complete battle mechanic overhaul — not unlike how ever Final Fantasy game pretty much starts from scratch with every game with their mechanics. I think it’s about time for me to accept that that’s not what the Pokemon series is, and that’s okay. Instead, I’ve found my attention being filled with games like Persona 5. In my mind, that’s a more fun and unique monster-capturing-type game.
I know Derek has put in a lot more hours than me into Pokemon Sword though, and has even done raids with some of our readers. From what I can tell, he’s having a hell of a time.