Interview with author Allen Wold

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Allen Wold today. Allen Wold has published nine novels, several short stories (mostly for the Elf Quest anthologies), five non-fiction books on computers, and a number of articles, columns, reviews, and so forth, also concerning computers. He is a member of SFWA and teaches writing.

ALLEN WOLD: Many people have complimented me by assuming that I teach writing classes, at NC State or somewhere. I am not associated with any college, or university, or even a high school. The only “classes” I teach are my writing workshops, which I do at science fiction conventions. Because of people’s comments, I have begun to think of myself as a teacher, and I am quite flattered that people think of me as one. I do have some ideas about how writing can be “taught,” and about college courses in “creative writing” (Manley Wade Wellman said that “creative writing” is redundant, all writing is creative), but some of these are best saved for private conversation. There are, and have been, some excellent writing teachers in various colleges and universities, teachers who’s stories you can read in magazines, or who’s books you can buy in bookstores. But I am not one of them.

VENTRELLA: How did you first get published? Did you have an agent?

WOLD: I did have an agent. I no longer remember the exact details, I was sending my first novel THE PLANET MASTERS around over the transom. Sharon Jarvis, then fiction editor at Playboy if I remember correctly, suggested two agents to me. I picked one, Lea Braff, and she agreed to represent it. At this time, I had no knowledge of submission protocols, and it probably showed. Lea sold my book to St. Martin’s Press, and after some fluffling around in the editorial department, it finally came out in 1972.

VENTRELLA: How has the publishing industry changed since you entered it?

It has changed a lot, but I’m not really qualified to talk about that. I do not study the industry, and what I have seen, has been seen by many. So many imprints now being owned buy umbrella companies (pun intended); restriction or elimination of non-agented submissions; agents themselves taking new clients only by introduction; and, fortunately, the rise of the small independent publisher.

I felt many years ago, that the small press would, or should, or could become more important, to the average fiction writer, than the large houses, and nothing I have seen so far changes my mind about that. Some small presses lack editing skills, distribution, or money, but some have all of that and more. Big publishing is dominated by the marketing departments of the various houses, rather than by the editors. Sol Stein, one of the founders of Stein and Day, complains about that in his own company. But small presses are usually not subject to their accountants. Baen is probably the largest “small press” in the business, and the publisher, Toni Weisskopf, and her editor in chief, Hank Davis, make their own decisions. At least, that’s how I understand it, I’m sure Toni will correct me if I’m wrong.

My point here being that big publishing, it seems to me, is less concerned with books than with moving product — books or fried chicken, whatver, let’s just sell a lot. I’m not the first to think that.

VENTRELLA: How much should a writer consider the market when deciding what to write?

WOLD: Being aware of the market is essential. If you know, for example, that nobody is publishing paranormal erotica (they are, oh yes they are), and that’s what you want to write, then you have to be prepared to struggle to find a publisher, or perhaps make your story seem more like a similar genre which is being published. I don’t like that idea. Not too long ago, cross-genre work just couldn’t make it. Now it hardly matters. I suppose Lovcraftian Romance (in the sense of a story of love, as opposed to the original idea of a work of fiction) might be a hard sell, and I don’t know if anybody has tried it. Or would even want to. I could be wrong. Anime hentai tentacles…?

But if you devote too much energy to trying to figure out what is going to be popular two to three years down the line, you’ll always be wrong, and you’ll be wasting your time. Right now, paranormal romance is, in fact, doing quite well. And if you write one, just because it is doing well, by the time the book is written, and submitted, and rejected and resubmitted, it may no longer be so popular. Or it might be. But you’re worrying about anticipating a market, rather than about writing your story. If your story is good enough, somebody will take it, even if it is a bit difficult to find its place on a bookstore’s shelves.

So yes, be aware of the market, but don’t write for the market. Write what you have to write. Write a book that you’d like to read. You may start a trend. More likely you won’t, but hey, there are no guarantees in this business. None.

VENTRELLA: Do you think the emphasis on e-books is going to help the individual author?

WOLD: How can it hurt? Every sale is a sale. The more readers a writer has, the better. Several publishers, Baen for example, offer e-book versions of their hard-copy books, usually at a discount. Their cost is minimal, their profit margin is high, distribution costs them only download expenses, which is nothing compared to paper, ink, printing, trimming, binding, and so on. I’m not talking about reading books on line, but buying e-copies which you can read on your computer or your Kindle or Nook or iPad or whatever. These are actual sales, you own the book. It’s just not on paper. And the more people who read you –

Well, you have to have a good story to tell, and you have to tell a good story (not the same thing), or it doesn’t matter what format you’re in. Bad fiction goes nowhere (though some of it does get published, see Pel Toro for example). Good fiction gets found out, and is read. E-publication is something I’m keeping in mind for some of my projects, but not all. As is going with a small independent press. But never vanity, that’s a waste. If you have to pay for it, become your own press. It’s a lot cheaper.

VENTRELLA: What techniques do you use to make sure your characters are realistic and believable?

WOLD: I don’t use techniques. I use my ever increasing understanding of human nature and behavior. I watch people constantly, not deliberately most of the time, but automatically. Everybody I meet becomes a part of that compost heap in the back of my head, from which characterization (not characters) is drawn. Everything my characters do is what I have observed real people do (though I couldn’t tell you who is the model, or how many models there are), it’s the way real people behave.

Once a character begins to reveal himself, or herself, or itself to me, my task is to make sure that that behavior is consistent. One of my main gripes with the second version of Star Trek was that developed characters frequently acted out of character. Also true of the TV series V (the original, not the remake). That destroys a story for me.

I discover my characters, or at least, those that work. I discovered Larson McCade, Morgan Scott, Rikard Braeth, Freefoot, and all their supporting characters. I didn’t actually create them per se. And once I got to know them, it wasn’t that hard to portray them as they were, rather than make them go out of character for the sake of the plot.

Larson McCade, from THE PLANET MASTERS, is instructive. The story came to me in a flash of inspiration (lasting about two hours) while I was walking across the UNC-CH campus. But who would be my hero (or anti-hero, as it turned out)? I thought, what if I based McCade on myself, but on my darker self, the aspects of myself that I would never let anybody see, never allow myself to express, the shadow-me. Badly done with Spiderman, unfortunately. So I did. Since McCade was an aspect of me, I knew him intimately. I didn’t direct him on how to get from one plot point to another, I let him do it, that is, I did what I would do if I were he and in his situation, and I just wrote it down as it happened. Fortunately, I’m not Larson McCade, and we should all be thankful.

It’s taken me a long time to perfect that method, and I’m still working on it. I failed many times between now and this century. I didn’t even know what I was doing when I was doing it right. But I do now. All my Elf Quest characters, though I didn’t understand it at the time, were independent people in my head. I just presented them with problems, and let them solve them.

VENTRELLA: How do you prepare? Do you outline heavily?

WOLD: I used to outline, but not any more. My outlines could be five, ten, twenty pages. For my most recent book (rejected twice so far), I had just three plot points: I had to get here, then there, then somewhere else.

At a convention many years ago, I was on a panel with Fred Pohl. The question of outlines came up, and I said, yes, I use an outline, like a road map, or a blueprint. Some people said they hated outlines, because then they were trapped. I couldn’t understand that. Just because it’s in my outline doesn’t mean I have to do it. They said they wanted to be surprised. I felt like I didn’t want to be surprised if, without a blueprint, I discovered that I’d left out a door, or a bathroom. That has actually happened to people I know, with real houses. But Fred Pohl said “I used to outline, but I don’t any more.” I didn’t understand that either. Now I do. I do not predetermine what is going to happen, what people are going to do, what they are going to talk about. I select destinations. He discovers he’s up against a vampire and decides he has to destroy it but doesn’t know how; he is killed by the vampire and in his spirit form discovers how to destroy it but needs a corporeal body to do it; he finds a body he can take over and does what he has to do. Three points, 80,000 words. Rejected twice. But my vampires don’t sparkle. Dracula didn’t sparkle.

On the other hand, for another novel which hasn’t been rejected yet, I had a list of 198 scenes. Each scene was an objective, not a description. I kept to that “outline” as a form of discipline, and it worked. Each scene had a viewpoint character, fifty two in all, and each character was, in my mind, a real person. Sometimes the scene description was something like: Riding in the back seat, the little girl sees the blue lights around the house. Now, what happens? Well, I wrote the scene, and all the others, and we’ll see what happens.

How do I prepare? I need my main character, without which nothing happens. I need my setting, my world, however simple or complex that may be, though I don’t need elaborate details, as I’ll discover more about it later. I need the situation in which my character finds himself, or herself, or itself. (Clumsy, isn’t it? How about themself? Check the OED for the use of they/them as equivalent to “he or she.”) I need to know what my character wants. And I have to know what I, as the Creator — um, creator — want my ending to be. Luke Skywalker wants off Tatooine, to go to university, and become a pilot. George Lucas wants to destroy the Death Star, and has to lead, not push, Luke to that ending.

Then it happens.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest misconception beginning writers have about the craft?

WOLD: That they need talent. Talent is nice. Talent makes things easy. But talent is not necessary. There are plenty of writers who do quite well and have no talent to speak of, but who have acquired the necessary skills, and the reader can’t tell the difference. Skill is far more important. Talent is what you are born with. Skill is learned, and you can learn an awful lot. Any writer who has written more than one book improves from book to book (or they don’t, depending on their talent rather than acquiring skill, and it shows). Dorothy L. Sayers first novel, WHOSE BODY, is nicely done, somewhat frivolous, and LORD PETER is definitely silly. By the time she gets to GAUDY NIGHT, she is a master, telling a story that is neither romance nor mystery, but a deep tale of two people caught up in a distressing situation. Lord Peter and Harriet Vane are real people. The book can stand alone. Dorothy L. Sayers’ talent was revealed in her first book. Her extensive skills are shown in her last book. (BUSSMAN’S HONEYMOON is a novelization of her own play, and something of a disappointment.)

There are other essentials, such as making, not finding, time; developing discipline; acquiring patience; and having the dedication to actually do it.

This last is truly important. You cannot become a writer if you don’t write. You must make the decision that you are, in fact, going to do it. You decide to acquire those other essentials, putting other aspects of your life aside, and you write. You read extensively, especially what you like to read (and you should write what you like to read, not what you “ought” to write), but read outside your field too. And read non-fiction, especially biography, history, mythology, archaeology, and anything to do with human nature and behavior.

You may discover you don’t really want to do this after all, that it takes too much effort and time, that it’s too hard, that the rewards aren’t worth it. In which case, give it up with a clean conscience. Many people who take my workshop discover that they don’t really want to be writers after all, and that’s fine. They’re now free of that obsession, and can go on to something else.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you see beginning writers make?

See above. But not giving it enough time, thinking there’s an easy way, not listening to competent comment, not reading enough, taking TV as their model. (Oh, yes, that’s a good one. Thinking that science fiction is what you see on TV or in the movies. Thinking that characters are what you see on TV or in the movies. Huge mistake.) Not paying attention to the real world.

All good fiction is based on, and derived from, the real world in some way or another. The most bizarre fantasy has roots in the real world, at least in the way people react to the bizarreness. Also, trying to write SF without understanding science. You don’t have to have degrees, but you must have a basic understanding of how the world really works. And if you don’t know, either stuff it in a black box, or do some research. The old Tom Baker Dr. Who did this extremely well. They did not make mistakes in their science. They either knew how it worked, or they black-boxed it. I was quite impressed.

Another is not checking a publisher’s submission guidelines. Always check the guidelines, and submit that way, whether you like it or not. Do not try to save paper by printing single spaced on both sides of the page. Always use adequate margins, a header with name and title and page number. And so on. You can learn basic submission formatting, most publishers with tell you. Follow the guidelines, or you’ll be rejected out of hand. Really.

VENTRELLA: Some of your novels are currently out of print. Do you have any desire to have them released as e-books? Is that possible?

WOLD: I would love to have them come out in any format. Currently, THE PLANET MASTERS should be released soon in a print on demand format from Warren Lapine’s Wilder Books, but I don’t know when. Contact Warren and ask for it. He may be doing something more.

VENTRELLA: Do you think writers should begin with the short story market?

WOLD: A story is as long as it takes to tell it. If you try to condense an idea to a short story format, it won’t work. If you puff an idea to novel length, it won’t work. The short story market is tight, not counting on-line publication, but it’s still there. You have to do your research. Back in the day, most SF&F writers started with the magazines, back when there were more than five or six national magazines that actually paid money. These days the whole industry is completely different. If you love flash fiction, and write it, that’s what you should try to sell. If you prefer the short story format, there are all kinds of magazines (some pretty bad), and open anthologies to which you can sell. If you prefer novels, say 100,000 words or so, that’s what you should do, though it won’t be easy. Especially if you’re a beginner. I know well established writers who are suddenly being dropped by their publishers, though their books continue to sell. I have no idea why. Maybe because the publishers are more interested in moving product than selling books. I don’t know.

Write what you write, know what the market is, and find the right home. You can not write to a market, it’s too volatile, and your heart won’t be in it.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best resource a writer should use in order to find a market for their short stories?

WOLD: There are two: Ralan and Duotrope .

VENTRELLA: What have you been up to lately? What are you working on now?

WOLD: Lately? Writing, of course. That’s what I do. Every day that I can. I have obligations on Saturdays, and Sundays I try to restore my energy, but otherwise, unless something unavoidable comes up, oh, say, having my gall bladder removed, or like that, I write. Every day. See, I’m writing this today.

And I read, mostly non-fiction. And watch movies, to take me away from my writing rather than for inspiration. And attend to my household management responsibilities (my wife works full time and supports me in every way).

Right now I’m doing a complete rewrite of a book I first wrote in 1990. I learned then the absolute necessity, for me, of having my personal Death Star in mind. I threw away four false starts, totaling about 100,000 words, before I finally asked myself, how do I want this to end? When I had that, everything drove toward that ending, though my hero wanted to do something else.

When we came back from England, in ‘98, I reread it, and it wasn’t very good. I had always wanted to do a character-driven story, instead of a plot-driven story, so I rewrote it, giving my characters free rein. It didn’t sell. Then I reread it again, saw how undisciplined my description and dialog was, and I’m rewriting it from scratch, not revising it, keeping the story as written, but tightening, cleaning up, making my characters internally consistent, cutting out unnecessary description, and tons of bad dialogue. It’s turning out pretty well. But we’ll see. When this draft is done, I’m going to do a new book set in THE EYE IN THE STONE world, then come back to STROAD’S CROSS for a final pass, and try to find a market for it. It’s a haunted village, not a haunted house, forgotten by people who live in the small town a mile away, perfectly preserved for fifty years, abandoned with food on the stove, money in cash registers, toys dropped on the floor. Finding out the truth is what the story is about.

Don’t hold your breath. These things take time.

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