Lucas Bale

Award-Winning Speculative Fiction Author

Bad Medicine, by S. E. Lehenbauer – Analysing A Writer's Process

I met S. E. Lehenbauer, as I always meet new writers, through means other than her books. It's a curiously small world, the speculative fiction indie circle, and the best indie writers seem to have the same goals and the same methods of reaching those goals. It's inevitable we bump into each other. In fact, meeting each other, revelling in the challenges of writing and publishing, reading each other's work and talking about it – these are some of the most pleasant aspects of being an indie author. S. E. Lehenbauer was introduced to me when she reviewed an ARC copy of No Way Home. When I discovered she wrote in a growing genre I love, one might say it was made famous by Stephen King's The Dark Tower, I got in touch. She recently alpha-read A Shroud of Night and Tears for me and you can identify real talent in authors when they do those jobs for you – how their minds work, the problems they see, the comments they make. This is someone who writes seamlessly, weaves a magical story and is one of those rare things to boot – a truly lovely person.

Hate those people.

And, to top it off, she's chosen to reveal the cover for her new book, Bad Medicine, right here. It's true. You could scroll down and see it right now if you wanted to. But then you'd miss this fantastic interview – one of my best. So just wait, will you! Have patience!

You scrolled down, didn't you? You never listen...

What was the catalyst moment which made you decide to write for publication?

I think I’ve always known that I was going to try for publication one day, but there was definitely an identifiable time when I began taking it seriously. I can’t call it a moment, really, because it was more a catalyst relationship. I met a lovely person online and we became friends. She’s the type of friend who not only believes in my ability, but also expects me to do something with it. Her encouragement really pushed me into writing that first project specifically for publication. She was my first beta reader, printing out a handful of hilariously awful chapters to read on a road trip many summers ago. (The opening scene had the narrator stepping off a train into a dark, stormy night, and how my friend kept reading past that is beyond me.) She's been with me every step of the way since then; even when one or the other of us is too busy to pass along bits to read or critiques, I always know in the back of my mind that she has an unwavering faith in my future as a writer. (Thank you, Briana.)


Why space western – what made you choose that genre?

This is an easy answer. Space westerns combine two of my most favorite genres. I suppose I was unintentionally following that old advice to write what you know.

I absolutely adore the classic western. I grew up on a steady diet of Lonesome Dove, John Wayne, and Little House on the Prairie. The exploration and settling of the American West has captured my imagination for as long as I can remember. My history papers in school would almost always be about some facet of the Wild West. You can chalk it up to the “American” drive to own, to conquer; we were (some might say, still are) the wide-eyed toddler of a country, learning to stretch our legs and scrabble for cookies at the back of the shelf. It wasn’t a particularly beautiful moment in history, of course. The tapestry of different stories and the myriad ways one can shift the roles of protagonist and antagonist in westerns fascinates me.

Science fiction being the opposite side of the space western genre, was also a huge part of my formation as a reader and writer. Along side the cowboys and fallen women were also Star Trek and Ender’s Game. Funnily enough, I think the reasons I like westerns go hand-in-hand with the reasons I like science fiction. Exploring and conquering the unknown; seeing great big open spaces that make you feel as though you are a heartbeat away from falling off the edge of…wherever you may be; perhaps finding new cultures, new races, new species’. These are shared themes between the two.  


Why do you thinking merging genres is so popular right now?

In contrast to what I was saying above about exploring the similarities between two genres, I think a large part of the draw is exploring the differences between two genres. For example, traditional westerns tend to be low-tech, whereas science fiction can lean towards high-tech. Reconciling that is part of the fun of world building. You get to ask yourself, “Ok, how much tech is reasonable for someone who grew up branding cattle with an iron held over a fire?” Or, “If I throw reason out the window and give her a ray-gun, how is the reader going to understand the workings of the weapon through the character’s eyes? How does she understand the workings of the thing? Or doesn’t she?" (Maybe she just knows to put the pointy end in the other man.) This reconciliation with the contrasts affects every move you make when creating your story, your setting, and your characters. 

Additionally, I think that merging genres leads to some great set-ups for humor. Try as I might to write a serious or grim story, my natural voice is always a bit on the humorous side. Playing up the wacky blending of two genres often becomes almost an inside joke between the author and reader, and that kind of intimate reading experience is something I strive to create.

Where does your inspiration tend to come from and who do you love reading?

Inspiration comes from everything, everywhere, all the time. I do not lack in muses. In fact, if you need one or three, I’d be happy to send them your way! 

I was a very shy child, and my family moved a lot, so I learned early on to entertain myself. Nowadays, my inspiration comes less from imaginary friends, and more from the stimuli around me. Music is always a good inspiration. I listen to anything and everything, from 90s rock to string quartets. When I was creating and writing Deviltry, I listened to a lot of folk and blues. I get ideas from going for walks. The way a rabbit dashes out from under a bush might spark an idea about a spacecraft chase. Also, and this may be one of the larger sources of my inspiration, from talking to people. Now that I’m not such a shy child, I’ve found a lot of joy in having meandering conversations with friends, with no goals other than to share ourselves with each other. People are endlessly fascinating. They often say things that wiggle into my subconscious and get tangled up with other ideas until something blooms. 

When I get any little seed of an idea, I scribble it down on whatever is handy and pop it into my treasure chest. When I’m stuck, I play with the bits and bobs in there, combining ideas or lines or images until I hit on something.

Who do I love reading, that is a harder question! It depends on the season, I think. In the winter, I want heavy tomes full of beautiful language and big ideas. China Mieville, Catherynne M. Valente, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Jeff VanderMeer are great examples, but also classics: Asimov and Lovecraft, especially. When it’s warm out, I end up reading poetry or nonfiction. (I like the Romantics, Keats and Wordsworth mostly, although Valente also writes lovely poetry.) I love Garth Nix and I have a soft spot for both Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch. More recently, I am gobbling up all of Victoria Schwab, S.A. Hunt, and John Hornor Jacobs. I’m also really excited about Daniel José Older’s writing lately. If I have one insta-buy author, it’s definitely Mieville. A lot of people find him too political, or too grandiloquent, but I think his work is beautiful. I always lose myself in his stories.


Who is Sally Carson and how much S. E. Lehenbauer is in there?

That’s quite a question.

Sally Carson is the product of a game of GURPS (a tabletop role-playing game) from many moons ago. At the time, I just knew I wanted to play a tough cowgirl character; I created the daughter of Kit Carson and jumped right in. Sally came fully-formed with her own ideas about who and what she was, though. She didn’t like being cast as the tough girl. She wanted to be charming and funny and sly. Soon her backstory included a Cheyenne mother, a pair of horse thieves as adoptive parents, and a string of mistaken mishaps and old lovers. Sally Carson is probably the only character who truly just showed up in my head a complete person. As though my subconscious had been building me an imaginary friend for many years, and was just waiting for the right time to introduce us.

Now Sally’s story has changed, and with it, so has she. She is still the daughter of Kit Carson and a Cheyenne woman, and she was adopted by horse thieves in her childhood. But now her past includes running away on a space ship when her mishaps got too serious to ignore. She’s been burned by a lot of people, but through her adventures on the space craft Wanderlust, she’s learning what home and family mean, and I think she’s maturing.

How much of me is in there? I don’t know. I created Sally in a game when I was 18 or 19, and I was looking for an outlet for a lot of things. Through her I was able to be a braver, more confident, more charming version of myself. But as she became a real character in a real story, I think she drifted away from that original version a bit. She’s not as flirtatious as she used to be, not quite as brassy. The worries of her conflicts in Deviltry are weighing on her, lending her a gravitas that has nothing to do with me. 

I suppose a good way to think of it is like a family member: we have the same ancestry, some shared DNA, little habits and features that are similar; but ultimately we are two different people.


How long do you generally research before beginning the first draft and how long does it take you to write that first draft?

That sort of depends. Deviltry, being the first in a series, took me longer. I was doing a lot of research into the history that would make up the entire series. Bad Medicine didn’t require nearly so much, as I had everything in place already. Research is also something I tend to do while I’m writing. As soon as I have just enough to inform the setting, I start writing and keep researching off to the side. Later I’ll edit in little facts and things I found. 

As for writing, that entirely depends on the length. Deviltry and Bad Medicine are both novellas, but they took wildly different times. Deviltry took me nearly eight months, from the day I wrote a single word to the day I sent it off to beta readers. This was largely because I was starting over again and again, learning my goals for the series as I wrote. Bad Medicine took me roughly four weeks to write. I wrote one draft in two weeks, and then another draft in another two weeks when I realized I wanted to change some major plot points. 

Longer projects don’t really have any kind of set average either. It’s usually about how much I can write during that initial rush of excitement. After that, it’s always a drag to get to the finish line. When I get an idea, I’m basically racing the clock to get as much written as I can before the burst of excitement is gone. I have written full-length novels that took a year, and others that took two months. 


How many times do you edit that draft yourself?

Ah, another hard question. My first drafts aren’t what most people would call drafts, I suspect. Maybe “well-fleshed outlines”. My first drafts look something like a script, really. Each scene has a few sentences about what is accomplished or not during it; and then I have all the dialogue and bits and bobs came to me listed below that. I might have blocking notes, or a few lines about setting, or I might have a whole scene written—that first draft is just about getting down whatever I can as quickly as I can. My first “edit”, then, is turning all of that into a story. Writing it out in actual story form. I also do line edits during this process.

So if you consider what I call my first “edit” the actual rough draft, then I only edit once more before passing a thing on to readers or an editor. This second run through is reading the thing out loud and making changes to affect rhythm or better word choices or what have you.


What is your writing background and how have you developed your craft?

My professional writing background is as follows: I have a few poems published in various small magazines, none that are available via the internet. I had a very brief stint writing for a small RPG company; I did world development for the setting of their steampunk game. I’ve served on several different organizations as a student in a writerly capacity, and had a few essays published in those organizations’ newsletters. Oh, and I wrote Deviltry. :)

My non-professional background: I’ve been telling tales for as long as my mother can recall, and writing them down for as long as I can. I started with historical fiction and fantasy, moved on to poetry and then spy thrillers, until I landed in science fiction. I’m pretty comfortable here, really, although I’m aiming to write some horror in 2015 as well.

I’ve taken many, many workshops and university courses in creative writing, as well as attended panels and critique groups; but I think your second question is better answered by saying I read. I read everything. Anything. All things. Learning to read, really read, has improved my writing more than I can say. 


Do you use a professional editor? If so, for what – developmental editing, line editing or copyediting? Or a combination?

Deviltry is my first real published work, so I can only speak from this experience. The publisher at LARRKINbooks also acted as my editor. Michael Woods is a fantastic editor, let me just say that. He’s got a real ear for story. And I say ear because so many of his edits made my work sound better. Things that may have been clunky are now smooth and stylish, and largely due to him. So to answer your second question, his editing was a combination. The majority was line editing and copyediting, but there were times when I came to him for developmental help. It’s a complicated tangle—Deviltry was originally going to be self-published, and Mike had been a trusted alpha reader when that was still the case. So as a reader, he helped me with developing certain parts of the story that weren’t transitioning as well as I’d like. Once I submitted the work to him as LARRIKINbooks and he chose to publish it, our work was mostly in the line editing. 

Having him look at my work like that taught me a lot. As just a reader, with no real interest beyond that of a friend helping a friend, he pointed out things that made me think. As a publisher, with his own name on the line, Mike was fearless about weeding out all my bad writing habits. 

Going forward, I definitely intend to continue working with editors for my work, in all three areas. I hope I’m always improving, but the fact is that I’m human. My absolute belief is that readers deserve as polished a product as I can release


What marketing do you tend to do to increase your public face?

I’m afraid I’m not very good at marketing. It’s something I’m working very hard to overcome, as marketing is an essential part of being a writer. Mostly I rely on the networking I do via Twitter. All of the various publishing or interviewing situations I’ve landed in have been because of Twitter. The blog tour I did when Deviltry released was arranged by me asking some of my Twitter friends if they’d like to swap posts. I so far have put a lot of my eggs into a single basket. (It does help to maintain some semblance of an active blog, just to make yourself look credible, though.) With Deviltry, I can’t say enough good things about the publisher, LARRIKINbooks. Michael really did a lot of work getting it out there, everything from launch pages, free promotions, and enticing reviewers with future ARCs, to setting up newsletters, talking it up to his local bookstores, and creating web banners for the sequel. 

In person, I’ve visited my local bookstores and given copies to the library; I live in a very rural area, so there isn’t much in the way of publicity to be capitalized upon. But the support from local readers has been very kind. In the future, I also intend to look into running advertisements in emags like Apex, but I don’t know if I’ll expand much farther than that. I love to write, I love to read, and I love to talk to people one-on-one about books. I’m afraid I don’t love to sell things, and while I know that’s a necessary evil in today’s indie publishing world, it’s not an activity I’m going to pour a lot of my energy into.


How do you see the landscape of publishing developing over the next 24 months?

To be honest, I’m the worst person to answer this question. I’m a horrible gambler, always have been. And there’s no mistaking that publishing is absolutely a gamble. What sells today will fall flat tomorrow, and while there are some somewhat safer trends to bet on, there is no such thing as a sure thing. However, I do think that we’ll continue to see an increase in the idea of “hybrid” authors, those who combine self, indie, and traditional publishing to reach the widest audience possible. I’m also hoping that as self and indie publishing becomes more and more the main avenue for authors, we’ll see an increase in better, more affordable art and editing services. Basically, I’m hoping that in the next 24 months, we’ll see a big push for more professional-looking books in the indie and self publishing world. We’ve got the talent. The amazing writers are there, the amazing artists are there, the killer editors are there. I would like to see more authors reverting back to times when books were really experiences. When there was magic, not only in the story itself, but also in the way the book looked and felt. To this end, I think we may also see an increase in crowd-funded books. It was definitely a popular thing in the last couple years. I backed quite a few anthologies over various crowd-funding platforms, and I don’t regret any of them. I hope as it becomes a more normal way of producing a book, it will allow authors to work with great artists and editors and inject some of that magic that trad publishing has into their otherwise-published works.


What is your next work in progress?

Once Bad Medicine has finished it’s final edits, I’ll be writing the third Wanderlust novella, Snake Oil. After that, I’ll be taking a short break to explore the horror genre for a while. I’ve had a Southern Gothic novel simmering in the back of my head for over a year now, and I want to exorcise that demon. Sally will be back, though, in the following year, and it’ll be a full-size novel that time (most likely simply titled Wanderlust).


And now for the cover reveal! 

Something my readers (and myself!) have been looking forward to for a few weeks now is the reveal of the Bad Medicine cover. Matt did a wonderful job as always, and I showed off a little teaser on Twitter. I hate to drag out the suspense too long, so without further ado, here it is in all its glory! Bad Medicine will be out the first part of June. Thank you for reading and I hope you all love it as much as I do!

Tell Us About The Cover Designs For Deviltry And Bad Medicine – How Were They Put Together And What Input Did You Have?

I worked with cover designer Matt Davis for both the covers. I approached Matt as a self-publisher, and hired him to do the cover of Deviltry. Later, LARRIKINbooks picked up Wanderlust, and thankfully kept the covers that had already been done.

Matt’s process is amazing. Full disclosure, I am now a part of his studio (, as the book reviewer/blogger. But when I hired him, we were only barely acquaintances, so I will attempt to speak from that objective viewpoint.

I contacted about a half dozen artists altogether. I knew of Matt because he had done some art based on a story of mine for an anthology (sadly, it was a Kickstarted anthology that didn’t get funded in time). My decision came down to two factors: Matt was affordable for my shoestring budget, and I liked his response the best. His reply email wasn’t a sales pitch or a one-line acknowledgement of interest. He asked me about the story. Asked me what the themes were, what the main images were, what the tone was. He asked me about the message I was trying to portray. Reading that reply, I knew immediately that I wanted to work with him because he wasn’t just going to make me a cover for a book—he was going to make me a cover for my book. Something that really grasped at the heart of my words. I replied back in a ridiculously long, rambling thesis about the themes and such, and from there Matt took off. In the course of creating my covers, he also created a wonderful little logo that we’ve been using to brand the series.

The input I had was as much as I wanted. That is to say, I am well aware that I am not a visual artist. Matt asked me plenty of questions about actual images and things I may want, but at the end of the day, I wanted him to create something. I trusted his talent. And he was always willing to edit things for me; Bad Medicine went through a couple of title treatments before we hit on one that my eye liked.

By the time we got to Bad Medicine, Matt and I had become friends, and I’d joined in to blog for Rock and Hill; so we were able to shorten the process. He’d already heard all about the story and themes just from me talking about it, so he just approached me with an idea, and I loved it.

The best thing about working with a cover artist like Matt is that while the story influenced the cover, the cover influenced the story also. The logo he created was later edited into the story, and has become a key image in the plot. The color schemes Matt chose influenced the overall tone as I was editing. It's a lovely cyclic relationship.

S.E. Lehenbauer is the author of the Wanderlust series. She also had a brief stint writing for an RPG company, and has a few unfortunate poems published in magazines that she prefers to pretend never happened.

She lives in Missouri with a horde of minion clones and a pair of dogs who moonlight as noble steeds. Her frankly excessive reading habits are showcased at in the bi-monthly book review segment.

You can find her on twitter way too often @SELehenbauer, or contact her on her website,


All words copyright Lucas Bale, 2015