Interview with Dave Freer

This week, I am pleased to present an interview with Dave Freer. Dave writes mostly humorous or alternate history novels and has collaborated with Eric Flint and Mercedes Lackey as well. His books do not always fit into nice little categories that publishers like, but that’s also what makes them interesting. Before pursuing a writing career, Dave was an ichthyologist, and (not making this up) fish farm manager. He is a rock-climber, chef, and all around athletic kind of guy, especially when compared to most writers. He lives in South Africa with his wife and children.
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MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Dave, what’s your writing process? Do you use extensive outlines?

DAVE FREER: I must write 200 words before I get up, go to ‘loo, make coffee, read e-mail, or any other displacement activity. Trust me: there is nothing like twisted legs or desperate need for coffee to focus the mind, and once focussed you often over-run the 200 by several thousand. Outlines? Oh yes, very useful… until the characters take over and ignore them. I still do them. They provide a framework to disregard… well, to build on. In the end the book fits the concept if not the verbatim outline.

VENTRELLA: What’s your writing background? Did you begin with fiction?

FREER: Writing background… when I was a final year schoolboy back just before the age of dinosaurs, I went to my English Master (Old British style Boarding School) and said “Sir, I want to be a novelist.” He laughed at me and replied: “Freer, you can’t spell, and no one can make a living at it.” He was right about the spelling, so I assumed he was right about the rest (he was a teacher, see, and teachers are right, except, as I later learned, when they are wrong), so I listened and embarked instead (after my two year stint as a conscript in Medical Corps) on a career in fantasy writing in which no could make a living. Okay, so it was lightly disguised as Fisheries Science (I am an ichthyologist) but it involved writing a lot of papers and reports about the status of the Shark Fishery and the biology of sharks. I blundered into writing from there in an unrepeatable fashion. (I started my fiction writing career in a stuck in a bathroom with amoebic dysentry for a week. There are many other better ways to do this. In fact, almost any other way works better. And is less horrible. I’m a GREAT bad example.)

VENTRELLA: What skills are needed for short story writing that are different from novel writing?

FREER: Shorts are a bitch to write well. Harder than novels. I always hold that writing shorts is best training for writing novels and I wish a lot of verbose novelists would do it. So, to me, there is no real difference.
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VENTRELLA: You’ve do a lot of collaborations with other authors. Do you meet in advance? Work through email? Is it basically one person’s ideas and the other’s work? What happens when there is a disagreement?

FREER: Eric and I met through a e-flamewar that ended in mutual respect. We became good friends and offered a collab proposal to our mutual publisher. Don’t try this at home, as you’re probably not going to get as lucky with a guy who can be gentleman and admit he was wrong – or be one yourself. My publisher set the Lackey collab up. We work through e-mail in multiple colors for our replies.

It’s usually one author’s seed-idea – for example RATS, BATS & VATS: Eric Flint had a short in which he had a talking uplifted rat and a bat rejected by one of the major magazines, with the editor profoundly informing him that the skull capacity of rats was too small for the volume of brain needed for uplift. Eric — knowing I was a biologist — asked me if this was true. I said I could think of at least three ways to solve the problem, and suggested the best. He said that would make a great story… and then we plotted the backround and setting. The book is still selling, and the mechanism I suggested was reported in Scientific Journals as a successful neurological implant technique. Of course a book is really rarely about science — it’s about the characters — and this one was no exception. I then wrote the first draft, e-mailing it to Eric to read as we went along. We’ve modified that over time — I now write the first draft with notes where I need him to put in stuff. We then do circulating edits.

SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS was a similar evolution. Eric said he’d really love to do another generation ship story, they’d gone out of vogue — but it would have to be something different. So we touched on the core problem with generation ships — they take a long time to get there and it’s quite possible the planet will suck for habitability when you get there. And then you have to do it all over again… and biosystems are fragile. We solved the problems in a rather unique way.

It’s more — with us — a case of two lumps of fissionable material being pushed into close proximity, than one person’s ideas. It’s about as much fun as you can have as a writer, provided you get the right collaborator. As forthe disagreement thing… it happens. We both give ground and reach compromises. That’s ideal, but otherwise resign yourself to “yes sir,” if you’re a junior partner.

VENTRELLA: How did you break into the business? Did you start with an agent?067131940X

FREER: Through the slush pile. Took me two years to the day from submission to acceptance. No agent back then.

VENTRELLA: How important is an agent, in your opinion?

FREER: Important. Getting more important every week. I actually think this is another case of publisher penny-wise pound-foolish, as the task (and relatively small expense) of trawling slush has been handed increasingly to agents. Some are good at it, but the reality is the short term saving is recovered from publishers, because it means authors get agents right off the bat (instead of many mid career as was once true). Agented sales inevitably cost publishers more, after the initial ‘get in’ — so by saving on slush reading they’re now paying more, sooner, for more expensive books. Agents have less resources and, in some cases, less experience with publishing than junior editors at a publishing house, so it may not be wise in quality terms. But that’s the status quo, it’s not going to change soon. Live with it, and pick out the good agents. There are some excellent ones.

VENTRELLA: Here’s the question I’ve asked everyone so far: What’s the biggest mistake you have made?

FREER: Turned down a collab suggestion from publisher… He wouldn’t tell me who it was. It was David Weber.

VENTRELLA: What is the best piece of advice you could give a starting writer?

FREER: You don’t need amoebic dysentry or the approval of your English teacher to write. You just have to write.

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