My Capclave 2015 schedule

Capclave is a fine little literary SF convention held near Washington DC, which this year will be on the October 9th weekend. small_dodo_transparentCome and join us and meet some of your (and my) favorite authors, including but not limited to Gordon Van Gelder, Alistair Reynolds, James Morrow, Alex Shvartsman, Lawrence Schoen, Catherine Asaro, Lawrence Watt-Evans, Allen Wold, Walter Hunt, and many more (including me!)

Here are some pictures I took from from the convention in 2013 and 2014.

Here’s my current schedule (subject to change):

Friday 10:00 pm: Improv Story-Telling (Ends at: 10:55 pm) Salon A
Panelists: Charles E. Gannon, Benjamin Rosenbaum, Hildy Silverman, Michael A. Ventrella
The audience names three things for the writer to include in an improv story and a cliffhanger to turn it over to the next author (who in turn gets three more things named to include.)
Friday 11:00 pm: Why Do Good People Do Bad Things? (Ends at: 11:55 pm) Bethesda
Panelists: Alan Loewen, C.S. MacCath, James Morrow, Michael A. Ventrella
What are the motivations for having otherwise-heroic people do villainous things in fiction? How can an author strike a balance between making an evildoer’s actions believable and somewhat sympathetic without turning them into an antihero?
Saturday 2:00 pm: The Epic Blockbuster (Ends at: 2:55 pm) Bethesda
Panelists: Sarah Avery, Alma Katsu, Dina Leacock, Michael A. Ventrella
In the 1950s and 60s, 200 page novels were common (and told a complete story). Today my bookshelf is groaning under Weeks (800 pages) and Sanderson (1000), and these doorstoppers are only part of a series. What changed? Do readers prefer long books and longer series? Are authors using these longer page counts to tell a deeper story with multiple points of view and better characterization? Or is much of this padding and a lack of editing? What books are worth the extra page count?
Saturday 6:00 pm: Building Your Audience (Ends at: 6:55 pm) Bethesda
Panelists: Kate Baker, Scott Edelman, Will McIntosh, Michael A. Ventrella
Now that you finished your book and found a publisher, how do you get people to read it? What promotional devices work and what turns potential readers off? And, after you’ve published three or four books, what can you do to expand your readership and get readers of your newest book to look at your older ones?
Saturday 11:00 pm: The Eye of Argon (Ends at: 11:55 pm) Bethesda
Panelists: Charles E. Gannon, Michael A. Ventrella
A dramatic reading, with audience participation, of one of the most notorious fantasy works ever.
Sunday 2:00 pm: Climate Change in SF (Ends at: 2:55 pm) Frederick
Panelists: James Morrow, Gordon Van Gelder, Michael A. Ventrella
What is the best approach to discussing climate change in SF? What does the modern attitude towards whether this is really science say about SF writing that features human action changing the natural environment?

How to Cheat When Writing Your Novel

Dear New Novelists:

Don’t worry if things aren’t going as well as you want with your first novel. I am a published author and I hereby give you permission to cheat.

Trust me, we all do it. Some of you just haven’t realized you can yet. You don’t think you can do these things because they feel like cheating … because when you started reading books, you never thought writers stooped so low. But believe me when I tell you: we all cheat.

Follow these tips and you, too, can cheat when writing your novel and no one will be the wiser.

Don’t write the story in order. Many starting novelists think they need to begin on page one and go in a straight line until they hit “the end.” Screw that. If you have a really exciting scene that you just can’t wait to get to, write it now while you’re all enthusiastic about it. Your desire for that scene will show in the writing and the scene will be much stronger because of it.

Or maybe you’re not quite sure how exactly you want to end it. Why not write the ending first? Then you have something to aim for, and can make sure your characters are always heading in the right direction.

If you get to a difficult part, feel free to type “and then some stuff happens” in big letters to remind yourself to get back to it later. Fight scenes are always hard for me because I know how important they are and that adds pressure, so I often write “fight scene goes here” and then come back to it later when I can take the time to choreograph the whole thing out.

Don’t feel constrained by time. Just because people read the book in order doesn’t mean you have to write it in order.

Write a crappy first draft. Seriously, I see this all the time: Writers who have the first fifty pages or so written and then they edit those pages and rewrite them and keep working on them until the fifty pages are perfect, but nothing else ever gets done on the book. They feel like they have to do this because the first draft is so crappy.

That’s okay. First drafts are supposed to be crappy — you’re just getting all the ideas down at this point. Don’t worry too much about your word choices, just get that story out. No one has to see it. Believe it or not, the majority of time you spend writing should actually be in the rewriting and editing part.

And then comes the hard part: killing your darlings. You have to be willing to cut huge sections of your work if they slow the story down or are unnecessary. My first draft of BLOODSUCKERS was around 96,000 words and the final published version ended up at 75,000 — but the pacing improved tremendously between those two versions.

Add foreshadowing afterwards. You know those cool twists and turns you love in books, where a big climactic scene ties back into something someone had said or done earlier in the books? Foreshadowing is fun and can make a great story even better, but you don’t have to plan it out. Write your story first and then figure out how to plant the foreshadowing in the earlier chapters. If you’re writing a mystery (and, as I’ve pointed out before, almost every story has some mystery within it), then you can also go back in time and plant the clues later. It’s okay. No one will fault you for this because no one will ever know.

Add character development later. Similarly, while you should have a good idea of your characters long before you start writing, there is absolutely nothing wrong with going back later and expanding on that by providing hints and clues about the character’s background. One thing starting writers tend to do too much of is create a huge backstory for a character and then think that all that has to be in the book, preferably all in a big chunk right when the character is introduced. This may help avoid that.

The bottom line to all this advice is this: Stop feeling constrained by the manuscript. Break the rules that exist in your head. The only thing that matters is the final version people read.

You can cheat all you want to get to that point.

Interview with editor Michael Pederson

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Michael Pederson today! Mike is a good friend from my old hometown of Richmond. He’s the publisher/editor/graphic designer responsible for the magazine Nth 1 In addition to Nth Degree, in 2006 Mike came up with the crazy idea of hosting a science-fiction convention in Richmond. After its tenth year, RavenCon moved to Williamsburg and Mike is still the con chair. In the last few years Mike has interviewed a wide range of writers, gamers, artists, and actors.

Let’s first talk about editing. How did the idea for Nth Degree begin?

MICHAEL PEDERSON: I had been publishing a local entertainment magazine (Scene) in the late ’90s and had to stop after four issues because I couldn’t keep the volunteer staff on track and it was too much to do by myself. This was also a period where I had GAFIAted a bit and was only attending one con a year (MarsCon in Williamsburg, VA). I really wanted to do something that would combine all of my passions—graphic design, writing, editing, and fandom. I worked out the basic framework in my head on a late-night drive from Northern Virginia to Richmond and then emailed all of my friends to get their input. After about two weeks, I had condensed everything into what became Nth Degree.

That’s been kind of a running theme in my life. I’m the Kermit. I’m always the guy that gets all his friends together and pushes them into creating something big and exciting. Yaaaaaayyyy!!!!!

VENTRELLA: What kinds of stories are you interested in?

PEDERSON: I always like to say that I look for character-driven stories but that sounds like such a generic editor response. I don’t really know. People have told me that Nth Degree stories have their own flavor and that reading the zine reminds them of the type of stories that got them interested in science fiction in the first place. It’s just one of those things that I recognize when I see it. My personal tastes run to science fiction over fantasy but the market being what it is these days I tend to see a fair amount of fantasy. And that’s ok.

VENTRELLA: What bugs you most about being an editor?  In other words, what is your pet peeve concerning submissions?

PEDERSON: Well, I could tell all the usual horror stories about improper formatting but I’ll skip that. Twist endings bug me. For some reason, writers who are just starting out tend to love to throw that twist ending at you. And 99.9 percent of the time it just doesn’t work. And people who submit non-genre stories. That bugs me. It’s not too hard to research the publication you’re about to submit to. Someone actually sent me a story about a game of golf they had played. I have no idea what they were thinking.

VENTRELLA: How did you become interested in science fiction and fantasy?Cover#25

PEDERSON: You make it sound like it was a choice. I don’t think I ever chose it; science fiction and fantasy were just always a part of my life. I started reading at a very early age and one of the first things I remember reading was a book of Greek mythology. I think that really shaped my interests. And then when I was in kindergarten and first grade I read through everything that my school had from some author whose name I had forgotten until much later.  I do remember one of the stories was called “Have Space Suit Will Travel”. I, of course, eventually realized that I had been reading Heinlein’s juveniles. At age eight I was reading Bulfinch’s Mythology. I also discovered comics around then. I still have the first comic I ever read, Peter Parker The Spectacular Spider-Man Issue #4,  “The Vulture is a Bird of Prey!”. After that it was Lewis and Tolkien and Kipling and Asimov and Bradbury and Clarke… all the classics. And I was hooked.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the first RavenCon and how it came to be.

PEDERSON: I’ve told this story so many times that I’ll go ahead and give you the seldom-told long version. Freshman year of high school (I did say it was the long version) was the year that I discovered there was such a thing as a science fiction convention. We had a very short-lived science fiction club at school and one week two girls came back to report that they had gone to a convention. The concept fascinated me. I had to go! This was 1982 though and there weren’t as many cons as there are now and there were very few ways to even get a schedule for the local cons. I also discovered that year, hidden in the back of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, a convention calendar! One page, every issue that listed upcoming conventions. The calendar was compiled by Erwin “Filthy Pierre” Strauss. I was further intrigued by the idea that people had different badge names that they used at conventions (for a while I went by the deceptively non-descript name of Harold Zwick but that’s another story).

So, five years later I make it to my first convention. The late, great SciCon. I instantly fell in love with the whole culture of fandom. During the late ’80s and early ’90s I was primarily attending SciCon, EveCon, and DisClave. When I started my comic book in 1993 (Raven), I expanded the number of conventions I was attending and started guesting and/or vending. I ended up doing A LOT of conventions during the ’90s. And I would travel all over Virginia and North Carolina and DC and Maryland and sometimes further, and it occurred to me that Richmond was geographically central to everywhere I was going. So why didn’t Richmond have a convention? In 1994, I started exploring the possibilities of hosting a con in Richmond but I didn’t get very far.

Cover #10Fast forward to October 2004. I had been attending between 12-16 conventions a year with Nth Degree and had met a lot of con runners and knew pretty much everyone on the local circuit. I was sitting around at a convention with Tee Morris and Tony Ruggiero and my old Richmond convention idea floated back to the top of my head. We were sitting in the hotel bar and I turned to the two of them and said, “You know, I bet we could do this.” I expected them to tell me I was crazy but instead they both agreed with me. So, three people that had never even worked at a convention (we were all writers) ended up putting on the first RavenCon in 2006.

As people that had done a lot of panels at other conventions we had a pretty good idea of what worked well and what needed tweaking and even had some original ideas of our own. I threw $500 into the pot and booked a hotel. Tee booked our guests (Terry Brooks for the first year!). And Tony put together the program. We recruited some friends and built a staff of 10 people. It was really a “Come on baby, hold together!” kind of event. There were a million things that could have gone wrong but it turned out amazing.

And to bring the whole story full-circle: I got to meet Filthy Pierre many times over the years. We did an interview with him in an early Nth Degree and had him as a guest of honor at one of the early RavenCons. He’s now a regular at RavenCon and I’m very proud to have him as a friend.

VENTRELLA: What are your ultimate plans for RavenCon?

PEDERSON: I want to keep building it. RavenCon’s primary focus will always be on the literary aspect. We like to include as much of the other fun stuff as well (gaming, filk, anime, cosplay, etc.) but at our heart we’re all about the fiction. We’ve always tried to add a little more every year. I think the only thing left on my wish list now though is a video gaming room. That should be coming in the next year or two.

VENTRELLA: I’ve attended most of them, and can’t help but notice how bigger and better they get each year.  Do you want it to keep expanding or do you think there is a limit you want to reach?

PEDERSON: We’ve always focused on small growth. We had 420 people our first year and are currently bringing in 1200 people. I feel like 2000 people would be an ideal number but our hotel is large enough that we could easily do 3000 if we wanted to.

VENTRELLA: Will moving it to Williamsburg next year change the feel of the convention?

PEDERSON: I don’t think it will change it. It will definitely focus it more though. Now that we’re sharing a hotel with MarsCon we’re paying very close attention to what makes a RavenCon a RavenCon. We have certain things that we do very well and we’re working extra hard to make sure that those things are our prime focus now.

VENTRELLA: Literary Conventions seem to have a problem attracting younger fans these days.  Is this a bad thing?  What can be done to get more younger readers to attend?

PEDERSON: I think RavenCon’s average age has actually been getting younger and younger every year. We owe comic cons a huge debt for that. Also, we partner with a local high school every year where we go in to the school and speak with the kids. We send them some of our programming guests and the students tell us what they enjoy about science fiction. Young people still read science fiction and they definitely want to be involved, it’s just a matter of letting them know that we’re here.

VENTRELLA: You’ve been able to meet and interview many famous writers.  Who was your favorite?

PEDERSON: Writers and artists and gamers and actors. Yeah, I love doing the Guest of Honor interview. Always the highlight of any convention I attend. And I’m very grateful that so many conventions have asked me to do that.Issue #1

Favorites… I’ve interviewed Jim Butcher twice and he’s a lot of fun. He’s got great stories and is very easy to work with. Sherrilyn Kenyon was amazing—she has an energy that is just infectious, you can’t talk to her without laughing. Elizabeth Bear—someone’s whose work I’m so impressed by—was another one that I remember fondly. I think some of the ones that I worried about the most were some of my most memorable though. People like Orson Scott Card and Larry Correia, where I go in feeling like I’m walking on eggshells, but then there’s always some point where you just connect with your guest and you’re laughing and swapping stories from that point on. It’s all very gratifying.

VENTRELLA: Who would you like to see as a guest that you have been unable to get?

PEDERSON: I have a personal wish list. It’s mostly people that don’t do conventions or are overseas and out of my budget, or both: China Mieville, Stephen Baxter, Neil Stephenson, Dan Simmons.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read?

PEDERSON: Everyone on my wish list. Jack McDevitt, John Scalzi, Robert Sawyer, William Gibson, S.M. Stirling, Jim Butcher, Harry Turtledove, George R.R. Martin. And, of course, the classics. Dune is still my all-time favorite.

VENTRELLA: You’ve done some writing; do you plan on doing more? 

PEDERSON: I have a couple of novels on the drawing board but haven’t been able to find the time to put them to paper yet. Between working a full-time job, running a convention, and publishing a fanzine there just aren’t enough hours in the day. One of these days though.

I’m currently working on a Kickstarter project that will fund a “best of” print issue of Nth Degree. It’s been online for the last 10 years and people keep asking me if I’m ever going to do a print issue again. So that’s keeping me busy. Oh, and I’m redesigning both the Nth Degree and RavenCon websites. I should really just stop sleeping.

VENTRELLA: Science Fiction doesn’t seem to be selling as much as fantasy these days, including urban fantasy and all the varieties. Why do you think that is?

PEDERSON: That’s a fairly recent development. SF always used to do better. I suspect that’s it’s just the way the market cycles. We’ll see science fiction on top again. Or maybe horror will start outselling everything. There are plenty of good science fiction writers out there right now though. Just look at the current lineups at Tor and Baen—it’s an impressive list. Maybe the Honor Harrington movie will be the push in the right direction that pushes SF over the top of fantasy again. In a way though it’s a little unfair to make the SF versus fantasy comparison; so many authors work in both genres and even blend the genres that it’s hard to favor one over the other.

VENTRELLA: With a time machine and a universal translator, who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?

PEDERSON: Groucho Marx, Jim Henson, Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams. There are others I’d like to meet but I wouldn’t want to detract from my time with my idols.

Interview with author Gail Z. Martin

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Gail Z. Martin again today! Gail is a good friend and a great writer who has helped me with advice from time to time. Some of her books are available through my publisher, DDP, and we often do DDP book release parties at conventions. Whenever we’re at a convention together, we always end up on at least one panel together, and she’s often been one of my favorite performers in our “Eye of Argon” panels.  I interviewed her about six years ago but so much has happened since then.

Gail, let’s begin by talking about your new steampunk novel, written with your husband, Larry N. Martin. Tell us about the plot!

GAIL Z. MARTIN: There’s lot of action, intrigue, industrial sabotage, cool inventions, mad scientists, awesome steampowered gadgets and airships!

So here’s the official blurb: New Pittsburgh in 1898, a crucible of invention and intrigue, the hub of American industry at the height of its steam-driven power. Born from the ashes of devastating fire, flood and earthquake, New Pittsburgh is ruled by the shadow government of The Oligarchy. In the abandoned mine tunnels beneath the city, supernatural creatures hide from the light, emerging to feed in the smoky city known as ‘hell with the lid off.’

Jake Desmet and Rick Brand, heirs to the Brand & Desmet Import Company, travel the world to secure treasures and unusual items for the collections of wealthy patrons, accompanied by Jake’s cousin, Veronique ‘Nicki’ LeClercq . Smuggling a small package as a favor for a Polish witch should have been easy. But when hired killers come after Jake and a Ripper-style killer leaves the city awash in blood, Jake, Rick and Nicki realize that dark magic, vampire power struggles and industrial sabotage are just a prelude to a bigger plot that threatens New Pittsburgh and the world. Stopping that plot will require every ounce of Jake’s courage, every bit of Rick’s cunning, every scintilla of Nicki’s bravura and all the steampowered innovation imaginable.

VENTRELLA: How did your collaboration work? In other words, did you split writing plots and characters and then edit it all together later or did someone do a first draft that the other revised and so on?

MARTIN: We worked out the setting, plot and characters together. Then we passed the drafts back and forth to tighten up, make sure of continuity, and continually brainstorm. We’ve got a pretty good system going!

VENTRELLA: Why do you think steampunk is popular now?  What is it that makes it appealing?

MARTIN: The Victorian era is now beyond living memory. For many people, it’s the era of their grandparents or great-grandparents. So it’s familiar (or at least the TV/movie interpretation is familiar if not the reality), but distant enough in time for us to be able to play with it without offending the people who lived through it. I&B final coverIn Europe, it’s also the 100th anniversary of World War I, which was really the end of the old world of the empires that the Victorians worked so hard to build. And it’s an outgrowth of the fascination with shows like Downton Abbey, which show the clothing and societal change (although without the cool airships and gadgets)!

VENTRELLA: Why did you pick Pittsburgh as the location for the story?

MARTIN: Pittsburgh is the logical place to put an American steampunk story because at the end of the 1800s, Pittsburgh was the epicenter of American steam-powered manufacturing. Pittsburgh in the 1890s was a huge deal, the country’s second-largest financial center, and the home to Robber Barons like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Mellon family. An astonishing number of important inventions came out of the Pittsburgh of that era, and its skies were constantly dark with the clouds of soot from the coke furnaces that drove the mills.

In our book, we tampered with history somewhat to incude the cataclysmic circumstances that creates  New Pittsburgh, so things are similar but different in some crucial ways. That helps to set up the steampunk, and also to create some long-standing opponents.

VENTRELLA: Will this be an ongoing series and if so, do you see an ending to the story?

MARTIN: Each book is self-contained, but we plan more novels and novellas/short stories set in the world of New Pittsburgh. We’ve done spin-off stories featuring the government agents from the Department of Supernatural Investigation that you meet in the novel, and we call those the Storm and Fury Adventures. One of those stories is in Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs. Aliens anthology (Airship Down). Another one is in the upcoming Weird Wild West anthology (Ruin Creek), and we just released Resurrection Day as a short story on Kindle/Kobo/Nook. There will be a new novella on Wattpad (Grave Voices), and stories in the upcoming Unbound corset-themed anthology, the Alien Artifacts anthology (currently on Kickstarter from Zombies Need Brains, LLC), and even a super-villain steampunk story in The Side of Good/The Side of Evil from eSpecBooks.

VENTRELLA: What are your favorite steampunk stories?

MARTIN: Jules Verne, shows like Wild Wild West, and of course the Books and Braun series by Tee Morris and Philippa Ballantine. Steamboy, The Rocketeer, even the new Sherlock Holmes movies with Robert Downey, Jr. have steampunk elements.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about Deadly Curiosities. Where did the idea for this originate?deadly

MARTIN: I went to a conference in Charleston and fell in love with the city. It had so much character, so much of a past, and was so haunted—I couldn’t believe someone hadn’t already set an urban fantasy series there. So I immediately began brainstorming with Larry and my teenagers to come up with the bones for a series that would feel intrinsically like Charleston.

VENTRELLA: Will there be more Deadly Curiosities books?

MARTIN: VENDETTA, the second Deadly Curiosities novel, comes out December 29, and we’ve got more planned. There are also a growing number of Deadly Curiosities Adventures on Kindle/Kobo/Nook with more being added each month. And there’s a free novella, The Final Death, available on Wattpad.

VENTRELLA: You began by writing high fantasy, with two separate series. When the Ascendant Kingdoms series is complete, do you see yourself writing others?

MARTIN: Oh yes. I’m already planning for a new epic fantasy series—and we’re planning a space series! I’m also bringing out short stories on Kindle/Kobo/Nook from both of my epic series. The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures short stories will add up to the equivalent of three serialized novels that are prequels to THE SUMMONER, and give the back story of one of the Chronicles of the Necromancer’s most popular characters. I’ve also just done a short story (No Reprieve) set in the Ascendant Kingdoms world that takes place in a six-year gap of time we skip over at the beginning of ICE FORGED, when Blaine McFadden is sent to an arctic prison colony. It is due to come out on Orbit Short Fiction in October. I’m planning a series of novellas filling in that six-year gap as convict/colonist.

VENTRELLA: Which of your series has been your best sellers?

MARTIN: I’ve been fortunate to say they have all done well, but I think there’s a lot of fondness for the Chronicles of the Necromancer series from readers. They keep asking for more books about those characters, and I do have 6 more planned that will get written at some point.

VENTRELLA: Is there one that you prefer?

MARTIN: It’s like asking which of your children is your favorite! They’re all special in their own way.thesummoner

VENTRELLA: It is easy to fall into cliches when writing fantasy. How do you avoid being too predictable? What is it about your fantasy novels that make them stand out?

MARTIN: I try to either pick an angle on a story I haven’t seen before, or a twist in the circumstances or setting that makes it new. Or I try to come at something key to the story—like magic–from a different angle. So in the Chronicles of the Necromancer series, it all started with the idea of a necromancer as a good guy. And in the Ascendant Kingdoms series, it was about a post-apocalyptic medieval world where magic was a casualty of war. They say that only two stories actually exist: 1) a person goes on a journey or 2) a stranger comes to town. (And someone pointed out those are the same story from different perspectives.) So I look for how to make it fresh and different. And while fantasy has its tropes and archetypes, there is plenty of room to play with them, switch things up, do the unexpected.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about promotion. You have a background in this, and have done many workshops and panels about it.  What is the best piece of advice you would give an author wanting to promote their book?

MARTIN: Build relationships. Promotion is nice, and it’s essential, but the sales and publishing opportunities will come through the relationships you build with readers and other professionals. And oh yeah—social media is not a fad. You need to be out there consistently.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about your advice books.

MARTIN: “Advice” books sounds like help for the lovelorn!  Actually, they are books on social media and promotion. 30 DAYS TO SOCIAL MEDIA hit several bestseller lists and got a lot of ink in publications like The Washington Post and Worth magazine. There are also two more 30 Days books on PR and on Productivity. I tried to make everything really simple and quick for people who didn’t have a lot of time but wanted results fast.

There are also three books on book promotion. The first one, LAUNCHING YOUR BOOK WITHOUT LOSING YOUR MIND, is about preparing for a book launch and what do to leading up to the launch and during and after the debut. The other two books are on online promotion and social media for authors. I tried to take what had worked for me, break it down and make it easy for other people to put it to use, minus the stuff I tried that didn’t work!

VENTRELLA: How did you first become interested in writing?

MARTIN: I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t making up stories, even when I was a little kid. When I was five years old, I got my grandmother to write down a story I made up about a vampire. The-Dread-frontWhen I was a teenager, I started to write fan fiction about my favorite TV shows and movies, and my friends liked the stories enough they bugged me to write more. That’s how I discovered that I could entertain people with my writing.

VENTRELLA: How much of writing is innate? In other words, do you believe there are just some people who are born storytellers but simply need to learn technique? Or can anyone become a good writer?

MARTIN: I think some people have a real gift for storytelling, especially if they have grown up in a family or community that values and demonstrates creating and telling stories. That’s especially true when people grow up hearing books read aloud dramatically or hearing family members tell tall tales as a form of entertainment and expression. Everyone benefits from learning technique. The point of technique isn’t to suppress your voice; it’s to help you use your voice in the best possible way. To that end, I think that someone who is sufficiently motivated can hone their abilities to write well. Will that make them a bestseller? Who knows?

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process?  Do you outline heavily or just jump right in, for instance?

MARTIN: I outline more than I used to, because doing three books a year plus short stories plus anthologies, there’s no time to go down blind alleys and start over. I can write faster with an outline, and I’m less likely to hit a dead end if I know what comes next. I can still sometimes get stuck for a bit figuring out how to actually write a chapter from that few sentences of outline, but it does help.

VENTRELLA: Do you find yourself creating a plot first, a character first, or a setting first?  What gets your story idea going?

MARTIN: It depends. It’s been different with each book. For the Chronicles of the Necromancer, I really had the characters of Tris and Jonmarc first and built the world and plot out from there. With Ascendant Kingdoms, I had the idea of a post-apocalyptic medieval world with broken magic, and built backwards from that. With Deadly Curiosities and Iron & Blood, it was the city setting that shaped everything else.

VENTRELLA: Writers are told to “write what you know.”  What does this mean to you?

MARTIN: Don’t try to be someone else. What works for someone else probably won’t work for you if it doesn’t come naturally. Martin_WarOfShadows-TP1It doesn’t mean that you can only write characters who are just like you or that you’re limited to experiences you’ve actually had, but even as you create characters who are very different or situations that are very different, there’s probably a thread of commonality with people you do know or things you have experienced that tether it to real life.

VENTRELLA: What do you do to avoid “info dumps”?

MARTIN: Try to make them as short and painless as possible. Even if you’re doing them in conversation or it’s explaining something to the new kid, keep it short. If at all possible, show something unfamiliar being done in a way that the reader can intuit for him/herself from context clues what is going on.

VENTRELLA: When going through second and third drafts, what do you look for? What is your main goal?

MARTIN: At that point, we’re looking for places where the pace slows down, for contradictions and continuity errors, for plot holes and places that need to be fine-tuned.

VENTRELLA: Science Fiction doesn’t seem to be selling as much as fantasy these days, including urban fantasy and all the varieties. Why do you think that is?

MARTIN: I think it’s due to a couple of things. First, we are living out the science-fiction fantasies (and nightmares) of previous generations. The Internet, cell phones, satellites, drones, WiFi, computer systems in cars, space probes to Mars and the rest of the solar system—it’s the stuff SF writers were speculating about and it’s real life now. So I think people are a harder to ‘wow’ than they used to be.

Also, where previous generations could be blown away by the idea of spaceflights and computers, the next generation of ‘wow’ is a lot harder to explain—singularities, chaos theory, quantum mechanics, string theory, etc. These things are profound and really mind-blowing, but they aren’t necessarily as visual as a rocket ship or a ray gun, and they require a reader to take the time to learn something and maybe even math a little.

Finally, I think that SF continues to feel less welcoming to women, people of color and people of different sexual orientation. Hard SF about the ‘future’ tends to show fewer women and less diversity than the real US Military nowadays! Certainly we’ve made strides with the women/people of color/LGBTQ people who are writing SF and going into STEM careers and actually becoming astronauts and physicists, etc., but I think the status quo still seems entrenched in hard SF (recent kerfluffles notwithstanding)—more so than in fantasy. Reign-of-FINALThe ‘future’ envisioned by a lot of hard SF looks an awful lot like the current status quo, only with cool background sets and robots.

Urban fantasy is a lot easier for people who may be relatively new to the genre to get into because it has one foot in the real world and so requires less explanation and less suspension of disbelief. And I think we’ve seen a lot more diversity of characters in urban fantasy and a growing effort to tell more diverse stories in epic fantasy beyond the standard Western European setting. People like to be able to see themselves in stories.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing?

MARTIN: I think it’s entirely possible to put out a very good book and reach a large audience with a well-produced and well-written self-published book. And I think most authors in the future will have hybrid careers writing for a mix of large traditional publishers, small presses and their own self-published work. But succeeding at self-publishing requires more time, effort and money than going the traditionally published route, and people need to realize what they’re getting into. You can’t do it half-way and make it work.

 VENTRELLA: In this market, with the publishing industry changing daily, how important is the small press?

MARTIN: I think small presses are doing really exciting things. They are picking up the slack where large publishers are cutting back on new books and anthologies, and doing very well at it. They are experimenting with new models like Kickstarter funding. I’ve always thought it was ridiculous that large publishers have a business model based on gambling on finding a few bestsellers instead of on the steady productivity of a solid, groomed and nurtured midlist. The current publishing model is more like horseracing than business. I think that small presses will figure out a way to make viable margins on books that sell well but aren’t million-copy bestsellers. And I think that will be a game-changer.

VENTRELLA: What’s the worst piece of writing advice you ever got?

MARTIN: One of my professors in college blew up at me when I said I wanted to write books. He said that he had never been able to get published, with all his experience and credentials, and so how the hell did I think I would get published! (To make it worse, he was the college chaplain!)  And now he’s long-ago passed away and I’m published. So there.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?

MARTIN: David Drake told me to stick with it and gave me the low-down on how the business actually worked.iceforgedcover2

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting writer that you wish someone had given to you?

MARTIN: Everything takes longer than you think it will. Stick with it. Just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it never will.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read?  Who are your favorite authors?

MARTIN: I just finished the Harry Dresden series by Jim Butcher, and I’m finishing up the Nightside series by Simon R. Green. And I always post the books I’m reading on Goodreads!

VENTRELLA: What projects are you working on now?  What can we expect next from you?

MARTIN: We’re finishing up edits to VENDETTA, which is the second Deadly Curiosities novel that comes out in late December, 2015. And the edits to SHADOWED PATH, the Jonmarc Vahanian anthology coming in June, 2016. The fourth and final book in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, SHADOW AND FLAME, comes out in March, 2016. In November 2015, the WEIRD WILD WEST anthology will launch at Philcon, with our steampunk story in it, “Ruin Creek.” THE SIDE OF GOOD/THE SIDE OF EVIL superhero/supervillain anthology with our story in it is also supposed to come out at the end of this year.  And we will owe a story to ALEIN ARTIFACTS, another new anthology, plus there are a few more anthologies in the works.  And we bring out a new short story every month on Kindle/Kobo/Nook in one of three different series (tied into the books). Plus a new Blaine McFadden short story, No Reprieve, coming out on Orbit Short Fiction in October, and a set of novellas set in the world of the Ascendant Kingdoms coming soon. Busy, busy!


Things You Should Never Say to Writers (and Why)

I’m not a well-known writer, but I’ve had some of these said to me. If you are meeting a writer, please don’t say these things:

“I wish I had the time to write.” Yes, of course, because this is just a little hobby and your time is so much more important than mine. Look, if you want to be a writer, you have to find time to write. Very few of us are independently wealthy. We all have jobs and families and responsibilities and the exact same 24 hours in a day as you do. We found the time, and so could you if you really wanted to do this.snoopy-writing

“Oh, you’re a writer? Do you know (insert famous writer here)?”  No, we don’t all know each other. Even the famous writers don’t know all the other famous writers. And besides, think about what that really says: “I only care about you insofar as you can tell me about someone else other than you.”

“How much did you have to pay to get your book published?” Me? I never paid one cent; my publisher sends me a check every six months, though. This is insulting because the implication is that the only reason your book is published is because you published it yourself. Even if it was self-published, the amount paid to do so has nothing to do with the quality of the book.

“Will you read my book and give me comments?” There are editors out there who do that for a living. They get paid to do that. If I have spare time, I would rather be working on my next book or reading something I really want to read for entertainment. You’re asking me to work. Do I go to your job and ask you to do it for me for free? Plus there are legal issues: Suppose the book I am working on has something similar. The next thing you know, you’re suing me even though your book had nothing to do with mine. Come on, you know it’s happened. (Note: this is different from asking me to read your completed book that’s about to be published and then give you a quote for the cover blurb.)

“I don’t read books.” So why tell me? More importantly, why do people who say this act proud? “Oh, books, they’re for the little people. I watch films and TV shows instead.” Yeah, I am so impressed.

“What’s taking you so long to finish your book?” It only takes a day to read it; why should I take a year to write it? Look, if I can get 1000 words down in a day, I consider that a pretty good accomplishment, especially since I have to find time to do it between work and life (see above). I can’t find time to do that every single day. My last few books averaged around 80,000 words, so that’s 80 days there if I was able to make the 1000 goal, which doesn’t always happen. Then there’s months of rewriting, editing, moving scenes around, and making sure the story flows properly. Telling me I shouldn’t spend the few minutes a day it takes me to post something on Facebook or my blog doesn’t help — those things increase my audience quite a bit and have helped sales. It’s part of the “job” as well.

“I have a great idea for a book! You write it and we’ll split the money.” Yes, because I have no ideas at all, and writing? Why, that’s simply typing, isn’t it? This one may be the most insulting, because it implies that writing is easy; that the hard part is the idea. I have more ideas than I have time to write, and the hard part of writing is making those ideas exciting and readable. I am not interested in being what you apparently see as a secretary/transcriber.

“How do you get your ideas?” Isaac Asimov would famously answer “How do you not get ideas?” Chuck Wendig has the best response, though: “Grab them by the collar, get real close until they can smell your old coffee breath and hiss at them: ‘The real question is, how do we make them stop?'”

The Eye of Argon!

Back in 1970, a teenager named Jim Theis wrote his own “Conan the Barbarian” style story for his friends:  The Eye of Argon. It was mimeographed with little illustrations and it was terrible. But hey, come on, he was a kid.

Over the years, that story was circulated around the science fiction community and became a fun thing to do at conventions, where the panel (and participants from the audience) try to read the story exactly as written, misspellings and all, without cracking up laughing.

Over the past few years, at various east coast conventions, I started organizing the reading but added something new:  Once a participant made a mistake, they were required to get up and act out the story for the audience as the other panel members read. I have a group of great writers who have regularly joined with me that make it fun, including Gail Z. Martin, Keith DeCandido, Peter Prellwitz, KT Pinto, and others. Sometimes I am able to con the Guest of Honor to join in, such as in the clips below where noted author Peter David experienced the craziness. (Apparently this has not gone unnoticed, as I just realized that the wikipedia entry has been updated to add this.)

If you want to try to read the Eye of Argon, here’s a link. But I think you’ll have a lot more fun watching the clips below:

Thanks to Sean Korsgaard for the video

Interview with Author and Editor Alex Shvartsman

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA:  Alex Shvartsman is a writer and game designer. He has sold over 60 short stories to a variety of magazines and anthologies. His fiction has appeared in such venues as the journal of Nature, Daily Science Fiction, InterGalactic Medicine Show, Galaxy’s Edge, and many others. Click here for the complete bibliography.alexbio

Alex edits UNIDENTIFIED FUNNY OBJECTS — an annual anthology series of humorous science fiction and fantasy short stories. You can get his latest novel here and read his short stories here. His web page is here!

Alex, what inspired you to create the “Unidentified Funny Objects” series?

ALEX SHVARTSMAN: There isn’t enough great humorous SF/F short fiction being published, and there is no other venue that specializes in doing such, outside of an occasional themed anthology. I knew I’d love such a series as a reader and felt there are enough fans of the lighter fare out there to make the project successful.

VENTRELLA: As anyone who has read my work knows, humor plays a part – not that I write comedy, but my characters have personalities and make wisecracks and funny things can happen even in a very serious book, just like in real life. What’s your opinion on humor in fiction?

SHVARTSMAN: I think almost any story can benefit from a bit of comic relief. There are very funny moments even in grimdark fare like Game of Thrones, and they belong well. But there is a difference between a story that’s humor and a lighthearted adventure story that uses humor as one of the many tools in the author’s toolkit. It’s difficult to define the line, and it’s something I’m always conscious of when I read submissions for UFO.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about UFO Publishing. How did that come to be?

SHVARTSMAN: I’m a tinkerer and a serial businessman at heart. It’s hard for me to ignore opportunities. I felt that I could put together a good product while doing things differently from many other publishers, and so I created an imprint for the UFO anthologies and an occasional other book.

VENTRELLA: Has it been a success?

SHVARTSMAN: I think so. I’m not rolling in dollar coins Scooge McDuck style (yet!) but I’ve been able to pay authors and other professionals involved in putting the books together competitive rates, and to release books I feel look as good as anything from a big New York publisher. I haven’t paid myself anything yet, which, I suppose, makes me a hobbyist — but I’ve made investments into the series and the sales are gradually increasing every year, so I may be turning a profit one of these days. Until then, I got a ton of experience out of it, got to work with and edit New York Times bestselling authors, and made lots of new friends in the field.

VENTRELLA: What are some of your upcoming projects?

SHVARTSMAN: This is a busy year for me. My short story collection, EXPLAINING CTHULHU TO GRANDMA AND OTHER STORIES was released in February, and my steampunk humor novella, H.G. WELLS, SECRET AGENT just came out. Up next is FUNNY SCIENCE FICTION — a reprint anthology similar to UFO that’s due out in September, and then UFO4 (featuring GRRM and Gaiman) out in November.

VENTRELLA: Editing an anthology can be a pretty frustrating job (as I well know) – what are some of the biggest mistakes you see when authors submit stories?

SHVARTSMAN: Often authors do not really understand what the editor is after. The best way to figure it out is to read the magazine/anthology series you’re submitting to — but not everyone has the time, or sometimes the budget, so I don’t get upset about it. Ultimately I would rather see the story if the author is not 100% sure whether it’s a good fit, then not see it.

VENTRELLA: What is your pet peeve about editing an anthology?

SHVARTSMAN: People blatantly disregarding the guidelines. While I want them to send stories in when it doubt, I don’t like seeing an 8000-word horror novelette when I ask for humor stories of up to 5000 words! I’m not even sure what goes on in the mind of such an author. What are they hoping to achieve? Suppose I end up reading this thing and even liking it a lot — but I don’t edit anything that could publish such a work anyhow.

VENTRELLA: How did you first become interested in writing?

SHVARTSMAN: I’ve been reading science fiction and fantasy since I was about ten years old. I’ve always wanted to write it, too, but my family immigrated to the US when I was 13 years old, and I had to learn a new language. For a long time my English wasn’t good enough to write fiction, and by the time it (arguably) became good enough, I was too busy with other endeavors. I kept promising myself that I would get to writing someday, when I had free time. Eventually I figured out that I will never, ever have free time. I’m the kind of person who finds himself projects to take up the time (see UFO Publishing!) And so I just decided to start writing, back in 2010. Five years and over 80 short story sales later, I’m still writing!

VENTRELLA: How much of writing is innate? In other words, do you believe there are just some people who are born storytellers but simply need to learn technique? Or can anyone become a good writer?

SHVARTSMAN: Being a great writer requires a combination of two things: talent and craft. You can have all the talent in the world but you will only ever be a mediocre writer without craft, and vice versa. Craft is learned: you do the 10,000 hours thing, you keep writing and getting those rejection letters, and your skill improves.

Talent, on the other hand, is something you have to be born with. Either you have it, or you don’t. You have to have at least some, to succeed as a writer.

VENTRELLA: How do you make your protagonist a believable character? And what’s the best way to make the antagonist a believable character?

SHVARTSMAN: This is really the same question: they have to be interesting, they have to want something, and they have to be at least a little inconsistent, like real people. They can’t be all-good or all-bad. That makes them predictable and boring, and real people don’t work that way. They have to have flaws, and weaknesses, and every character you write has to act and speak as though he/she is the hero of the story. Because in their own mind, they are.

VENTRELLA: Which of your characters was the hardest to write and why?

SHVARTSMAN: The protagonist of my novel-in-progress is a queen and a warlord who skirts the line between anti-hero and villain, and is forced to make many difficult choices along the way. Writing her is a balancing act: I want to keep her sympathetic to the reader but not too sympathetic, because she often does bad things or makes bad choices. So I play the balancing act, to ensure the reader always wants to keep turning pages.

VENTRELLA: Do you think readers want to read about “believable” characters or do they really want characters that are “larger than life” in some way?UFO2cover

SHVARTSMAN: They absolutely need to be larger-than-life. No one wants to read about Bob from accounting who comes home from work and watches Netflix for the rest of the evening, because that’s boring. The characters themselves need to be extraordinary, or they can be ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances. Either way can work well, depending on the story you want to tell.

VENTRELLA: What makes your fiction unique? In other words, what is it about your stories that makes them stand out against all the other similar stories out there?

SHVARTSMAN: Every author’s stories are unique in some way, aren’t they? We all have our own voice. In my case, I tend to write short, compact stories with very tight plots and (hopefully) clever resolutions. And, of course, a healthy dash of humor.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process?  Do you outline heavily or just jump right in, for instance?

SHVARTSMAN: I envision the world of the story, the conflict, and then the resolution. That last one is key: if I don’t have an ending I’m satisfied with, I don’t start writing the story.

Once those elements are in place, I mostly pants the rest. Each scene drives the story toward the intended resolution in some way, which keeps things nice and compact, while I get to explore the setting and my characters along the route of this journey.

VENTRELLA: Do you find yourself creating a plot first, a character first, or a setting first?  What gets your story idea going?

SHVARTSMAN: A lot of my stories begin with a “what-if” idea. But it can really start with any prompt, or combination of prompts. Like most writers I know, I have a note file where I write down story ideas, one-liners, and other curiosities that I think I can use in my fiction.

Several of my stories, including my most famous one: “Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma,” grew out of conversations and goofing around on Twitter.

VENTRELLA: Writers are told to “write what you know.”  What does this mean to you? 

SHVARTSMAN: Not a damn thing. I write about galactic empires, magic, and alternate-history Victorians.

Seriously though, your life experience always influences your fiction. Coffee_Cover_v1r2Whether it’s personal experience or just being well-read. GRRM could not have written his epic fantasy series without studying up on the War of the Roses. Asmiov probably would not have invented his Three Laws of Robotics without his scientific background. And me? I immerse myself in pop culture and stay current on the latest cat memes!

VENTRELLA: What do you do to avoid “info dumps”?

SHVARTSMAN: Exposition gets a bum rep, especially among beginner workshop authors who don’t know any better. In truth, it’s an integral part of storytelling and one should use it when it’s the best tool for the job. The trick is to use it sparingly, just like every other tool you have. Write interesting enough exposition and you can keep the reader’s attention for pages, without them pausing to notice!

VENTRELLA: When going through second and third drafts, what do you look for? What is your main goal?

SHVARTSMAN: Clarity. A lot of the time what’s clear to the omniscient view inside of my head is not necessarily translating to the page. Likewise, there are a lot of extra words hiding in the first-second drafts that need to be cut. For example: “He nodded his head.” Well, what the hell else was he going to nod? “His head” gets cut in the third draft. (Pun intended.)

VENTRELLA: Do you think it is important to start by trying to sell short stories or should a beginning author jump right in with a novel?

SHVARTSMAN: I don’t think that’s a requirement. There is no right or wrong way to go about it. In my case, I’m confident that cutting my teeth on short stories will help me improve my odds of writing a sellable novel. But one shouldn’t force themselves to write short if that’s not their preferred form.

VENTRELLA: Do you think short stories are harder to write than novels?

SHVARTSMAN: They’re not harder to write, but they’re harder to sell. I think it’s more difficult to place a short story with a top genre magazine than to sell a novel. Because a good short story writer pumps out dozens of them a year, and so the competition is fierce. While plenty of novels get written every year as well, few of them are publishable and most of those generally find homes.

VENTRELLA: Since we are on panels together at conventions all the time, I assume you think they’re worthwhile.  Why do you find these to be a useful activity?

SHVARTSMAN: Absolutely. There are a ton of great writers out there to choose among. Meeting readers in person is a great way to convince them to sample your writing.

VENTRELLA: Many authors are using online sites to publish short stories these days.  Have you done this, and if so, has it worked for you?ufocover

SHVARTSMAN: I have my reprint stories (once the rights have reverted) available as e-books, as well as downloads on — it’s a few extra dollars a month, not a major source of income or readers, but it adds up, slowly, and there’s no good reason not to utilize every avenue available to obtaining new readers and getting paid for your work.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing?

SHVARTSMAN: It’s an awesome tool but it works best for authors with a fair amount of traditional publishing success. Tim Pratt is an excellent example of someone who does both. I don’t think it’s a great way for a new novelist to start out. Editors and publishers act as gatekeepers: they ensure that only the highest quality work sees the light of day. Very often I see authors on the verge of becoming very good give up and self-publish books/stories that are only a little sub-par. Have they stuck with the submission process, it would force them to work harder and to improve faster. As is, and with the lack of the gatekeepers, they settle into the “good enough” attitude and produce weaker work.

VENTRELLA: In this market, with the publishing industry changing daily, how important is the small press?

SHVARTSMAN: Small press is important in that boutique publishers can often undertake niche projects that a big publishing house won’t take the chance on. I think there’s room for every size publisher in the healthy industry — the important thing is that, even the smallest publishers, learn to treat authors well and fairly.

VENTRELLA: What sort of advice would you give an un-agented author with a manuscript?

SHVARTSMAN: Submit to agents. And while you wait, write the next book!

VENTRELLA: What’s the worst piece of writing advice you ever got?

SHVARTSMAN: Someone in a critique once told me never to open a story with dialog. They told me this at length. And they meant it.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?

SHVARTSMAN: Keep writing. If possible, write every day. Don’t give up. So many people give up because they become discouraged with rejection or lack of sales. This is not for the thin-skinned: you take your lumps and you keep working. If you stick with it, and you have some of that talent we talked about above, you will eventually succeed.

VENTRELLA: With a time machine and a universal translator, who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?

SHVARTSMAN: Teddy Roosevelt, Benjamin Disraeli, and Mikhail Bulgakov. I’m pretty sure I’d enjoy myself, if I didn’t die of awesome first.

VENTRELLA:  Well, I agree about Roosevelt, who is the major character in my upcoming steampunk novel!


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