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!

Interview with author and editor Cat Rambo

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Cat Rambo today. Cat lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 150+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Her short story, “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain,” from her story collection NEAR + FAR (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. ramboHer editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current Vice President of SFWA and its upcoming President. For more about her, as well as links to her fiction, visit her web page here

So, Cat… What took you so long to write a novel? And why so many being released this year?

CAT RAMBO: It’s not so much that it took me so long to write a novel as it took me so long to get one published. ;)  This year I’m releasing two, the first and second books of the Tabat Quartet, and hoping to release the next two next year. Part of the speed’s due to a very nice thing about small publishers – they’ve got much faster schedules, generally, than the traditional one. I do have a slew of books coming out this year, but that’s because there’s a couple of short story collections and a cookbook out in the mix.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the Tabat series.

RAMBO: Tabat is a fantasy city that I’ve been working in for years now with short stories. It’s a city that depends heavily on intelligent magical creatures for its existence, and BEASTS OF TABAT takes place at a time in which many of those creatures are questioning that system. 91KRunE5CwLOne of the advantages of having worked in it so much with short stories is that I know the world very well; another that’s emerged is that many of those stories have turned out to be foreshadowing of things that would take place in or affect the novel.

VENTRELLA: As an editor, how do you determine what you want? Could you tell within the first page whether it was something you wanted to read?

RAMBO: You can tell a lot from the first three paragraphs; mainly whether or not the author is capable of telling a good story. For me, I’d go through a batch of slush, maybe 40-50 stories, and perhaps pull out 5-6 that made me go hmm, maybe. Then I’d go back in a day or two and winnow out any story I couldn’t remember reading — maybe half. Even then you usually have to keep culling, and often that’s the point where you start thinking about things like the stories that will run with it (because you want a balance, or at least a feeling of coherence in an issue or anthology) or what else is in the pipeline.

VENTRELLA: What do you think SFWA should do about its admissions given the great changes in the publishing industry? Do you agree with what has been done so far?

RAMBO: I think SFWA should continue to observe the changes and try to react in ways that help it continue to serve professional writers. I absolutely agree with the recent changes in admitting independently and small press published writers – getting that in place was one of the reasons I ran for SFWA office.

At the same time we’re not abandoning the traditionally published writers, by any means. As part of the change, we also nudged up the necessary advance amount from $2k to $3k, in order to pressure publishers to give larger advances.

VENTRELLA: You’ve written books about how authors can use social media to promote themselves. What do you think is the biggest mistake made?

RAMBO: I think being negative or mean in social media is one of the biggest mistakes. You can be clever/cruel, sure, and build a following, but I keep seeing that strategy eventually biting people in the ass.41ydtaxrkLL._UY250_ I was reading someone’s post the other day, who was lamenting that a particular workshop never had invited them to teach, and I am pretty sure I know the reason why, which was a lot of very funny but rather cruel things said about not just their students but that workshop.

VENTRELLA: I’ve been advised many times to avoid talking about politics in social media, but I refuse to shut up. Should I worry? Do you think this will limit me in making connections and book sales?

RAMBO: If you’re writing good books, that’s the most important thing. But beyond that it really depends on how you’re doing it. I’ve got Facebook friends that feel obliged to come correct me whenever they think I’m wrong politically, and there’s a big difference for me between the ones who will say, hey, I think that argument is skewed and here’s the data/reason why I think that, and the ones who come screaming in strafing about dirty dirty (noun of your choice) oppressing them.

So – if you’re being reasonable about it and interested in discussion rather than scoring points – I think anyone who would refuse to make a connection because of your politics might not be worth making connections with.

VENTRELLA: There’s so much I could ask you about the whole sick puppies controversy. How do you think the Hugos should deal with them?

RAMBO: The WSF and the valiant volunteers who run Worldcon each year have my deepest sympathy and good wishes. But rarely have I been so glad to not have SFWA involved in a particular controversy – and I don’t think we should be, because we have members on several different sides – and I firmly believe there are a kerjillion “sides”, not an Us vs. Them in the way it keeps getting parsed.  I wish I had a solution that would leave everyone feeling happy and as though their various concerns had been heard – but I’m not sure that solutions exists.

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?

RAMBO: Certainly there are some people that pick it up faster than others. I suspect that the amount of reading one does has a certain affect on that. But I’ve also seen people move from not particularly competent writers to ones whose writing I’ll seek out. The fact is, though, that if someone’s working at it – writing, and thinking about writing and how to make it better – they will, barring something physiologically wrong with them.

We learn storytelling in the same way we learn our native language, by listening and retelling, first fairy tales and legends and other children’s stories. cat bookWe know the grammar and the expectations: that something happens, that there is a beginning, middle and end, and so forth. It’s one of the things that makes interacting with kids so much fun – witnessing them learn how storytelling works. I’m on vacation right now with my godkids, aged 5 and 7, and we’ve been playing a lot of storytelling games.

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

RAMBO: I need a good starting point, usually. With short stories, most of the time I’ve spent a good period thinking about the story and how it will progress before I start writing it down, and have a good idea of the shape.

For example, I recently was working on a story I’ve tentatively titled, “The Owlkit, the Candymaker, the Beekeeper, and the Brewer.” I knew it was the story of a lost animal looking for a home in a specific setting that I’ve written in a couple of times before, and I knew it would interact with each of the people mentioned in the title. When I knew a little bit about their circumstances and how they related to each other, I was able to sit down and write a first draft. I wasn’t entirely happy with the ending, so I put the story aside for a few days and then went back when I’d figured out how I wanted to refine the ending.

Books are entirely different, and every one so far has been its own particular flavor of chaos.

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

RAMBO: Here’s the thing. Stories are, at their hearts, about being human. About what human beings do. And that’s where “write what you know” comes in. You may not know what it’s like to be a mermaid pining away for a mortal love, but all of us know what it’s like to suffer unrequited love. That’s the heart of the story, and it’s where you do have to dig deep into your own experience and put it on the page.

It’s helpful to know wonderful, realistic details that help you create an engaging, immersive world. seedTo be able to use them as part of the story. But without some human heart to it, all those details won’t do much.

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?

RAMBO: That depends so much on the person and their circumstances. If writing short stories is hard for them, for example, then a novel might be the most logical place. For another, for whom it comes more naturally, writing short stories might be a better way to get their name known to the point where an agent will be interested – but that’s not going to help without a good book to sell.

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

RAMBO: One of the things I’ve been doing lately is calling it independent publishing, rather than self publishing, because to me that’s one of the niftiest things about the current publishing scene: writers are not required to go through the set of traditional gateways they’ve had to in the past. Now there’s a lot of different publishing models, including crowd-funding, subscriptions, small press, etc.

Writers differ wildly. For those who don’t want to handle marketing or any of the business aspects, the traditional options are still there. But that model doesn’t make as much sense for the very prolific or the ones who are also skilled in self-marketing. That’s really pretty nifty.HH-Near-Cover1-200x300

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

RAMBO: Someone once told me that editors don’t like stories with cats in them. This also qualifies as the most bizarre piece of writing advice I ever got.

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

RAMBO: I’m working on the sequel to BEASTS OF TABAT right now — HEARTS OF TABAT — which will be followed by the other two books of the quartet, EXILES OF TABAT and GODS OF TABAT. I’ve also got a new story collection coming out this fall, NEITHER HERE NOR THERE, which is another double-sided collection like an earlier one, NEAR + FAR. I’ve also got a young adult novel that I’m picking away at and want to have a complete draft of by the end of the summer.

Keep them turning pages

I don’t want my readers to put my book down. I want them to get to the end of a chapter and go right to the next one. I want them to not be able to go to bed because they have to see what happens next. I want them to have to rearrange their daily schedule to squeeze in reading time.

Isn’t that the goal of all writers? Shouldn’t it be? Isn’t that the kind of book you like to read?

Writing like that isn’t easy. Mostly it takes an acknowledgment that this is your goal. Then you look at what you have written to make sure you are achieving it.hiermione

Dan (“Da Vinci Code”) Brown is one of those authors who understands this. He’s not a very good writer in the sense that he has a great appreciation for character development or prose itself, but he writes his books like a good action movie. (For a better example, read Jonathan Maberry.)

In these kinds of books, there are no long scenes of people sitting around drinking coffee and discussing the plots — things are constantly moving. Discussions are held on the run, while the characters are being chased, while action is happening. Chapters are short — scenes, basically — and we cut back and forth to other characters often.

I’ve been reading these and trying to make my stories follow those patterns. Here’s what I am always thinking about when I write:

How can I keep this moving? Can these characters have this conversation while being chased by the antagonist?

Are things going too smoothly? Has this scene gone on too long? What can I do to interrupt my characters in the middle of what they’re doing to raise the stakes and keep the action going?

How can I make sure there is plenty of tension? Are my main characters getting along too well? Is my protagonist too pure and not well developed to have his/her own inner tensions? How can I get them arguing and disagreeing?

How can I end this chapter on a cliffhanger? Can I get to an exciting spot and then stop, so that the reader can’t just put the book down? Then, can the next chapter be from another character’s point of view so that the tension in the previous scene is heightened?

Am I revealing too much? Am I spoon-feeding the plot to the reader?  (There should be constant questions on every page — What did he mean by that statement? What is that character hiding? Why did the writer mention the red envelope? Why is that important?  Every good story is a mystery — even if the mystery is figuring out what the bad guy’s plan is. Don’t solve the mystery or give away too many clues too early.)

It might help if you think about the pacing of your book from the point of view of TV and film, because that seems to be the kind of thing readers want these days. And there’s a reason TV shows and movies do this: It works. It keeps people from changing the channel. It keeps them glued to the screen. And these tricks are exactly what you should be doing with your writing to keep your readers from tossing your book aside.

Mind you, I write adventures. I want my stories to be exciting. But even if you’re writing a character-driven novel about how a family deals with a serious crisis, you still want people to not be able to put your book down. You want them turning pages. You don’t have to include chase scenes and fist fights, but you do need to include tension, anger, and conflict as often as possible, and you need to make the threat great even if that threat is just the breakdown of a relationship.

Balticon 2015

This weekend, I will be a guest at Balticon 49!

Guest of Honor is Jo Walton, but also in attendance will be many great writers, including (but not limited to) Philippa Ballantine, Keith DeCandido, Gail Z. Martin, Jack McDevitt, Tee Morris, and many many more you can read about at the link above.

For pictures from previous Balticons, visit my Facebook page.

I hope to see you there!

The Mummy of Barnsley

Hey! Want to hear me read one of my stories for free?

The Mummy of Barnsley” takes place in the world of Philippa Ballentine and Tee Morris‘ “Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences” steampunk novels. They asked me to contribute a story to their “archives” podcast and as I am big fan of those books, I could not refuse. Plus they paid me.Diamond-Conspiracy_small

Here’s the story blurb: “Agent Ernest Throckmorton is called to Barnsley to investigate reports of a mummy terrifying the town. Throckmorton soon finds himself thrown together with an all too eager assistant desperate to be part of the Ministry, as they hunt down the meaning of the mummy’s ominous threat. All shall pay for the desecration of the tomb!”

I had a lot of fun writing this and hopefully, you will have a lot of fun listening to it. Try not to laugh when I attempt British accents.

I have had requests from people to get my books into audio, so here’s the next best thing. The entire story runs about 30 minutes and you can listen to it from your computer or download it for later. And then leave a comment to let Pip and Tee know you liked it!

Here’s the link. 

Interview with author Ryk Spoor

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I used to have a policy where, if I had interviewed someone once for my blog, I wouldn’t do it a second time. Then I thought “Why not? Authors have new books and new things to talk about. Why limit myself?

So here today is author (and friend!) Ryk Spoor. You can read his previous interview here.unnamed

Ryk, you and I seem to have similar experiences growing up. I went to the library weekly and pored through Danny Dunn and all the old Wizard of Oz books … However I haven’t read any Oz books since then with the exception maybe of the Philip Jose Farmer one back in the 70s. What made you decide to write one?

RYK SPOOR: Heh. “Decide” isn’t exactly the right word. More like “Found myself compelled to do so”.

VENTRELLA: Well, good point. So tell me about it! What compelled you?

SPOOR: It started with seeing a rainbow on the way home from work one day. This rainbow was truly extraordinary; it persisted for something like 15 minutes, which in this area of the world is virtually unheard of, and it was extremely brilliant, against a backdrop of very dark clouds. I managed to get some not-very-good-pictures of it using my phone, one of which was used as the background for the Kickstarter image.

Now, of all the Oz characters, it was Polychrome, the Daughter of the Rainbow, that I’ve always liked best. At one point, while I was driving, it looked as though the rainbow was coming right down into Westgate Plaza, and I had a sudden vision of Polychrome dancing down the rainbow and ending up in that parking lot. That single image stayed with me, and started to build a plot around it. I tried to ignore it, as this was one of the least salable ideas I could imagine, and the plot that was being built up was quite unashamedly Mary-Sue in the extreme. But the damn thing wouldn’t go away, and one day it suddenly leapt back into my consciousness with all of it detailed — the heroes, the villains, the plot, key events and awesome scenes, all of it, and it took over. TOOK OVER. As in, it took my other writing hostage. “Nice deadlines you have there. Shame if something were to happen to them.” I found I had to write at least one chapter of POLYCHROME a week, or I couldn’t write anything else!

VENTRELLA: What was it about Polychrome that interested you over other characters?

SPOOR: Well, in all honesty it was a preadolescent crush to begin with; the imagery was just so beautiful, and I associated her of course with rainbows, which are to me one of the most wondrous sights in the real world, so that combined with John R. Neill’s illustrations made me absolutely fascinated with her. She had the typical cheerful confidence of most Baum heroines, but also — within the limits of that era’s writing — a power that most other characters didn’t have, shown most clearly in a couple of scenes where she demonstrates that she is utterly beyond the ability of most beings to even touch if she doesn’t want them to. This is probably seen most obviously in the non-Oz book by Baum called SKY ISLAND, and in one scene in Tik-Tok of Oz where the Nome King tries to catch her and she simply humiliates him. She was also shown just enough to tell you that there was a lot more to her, but not enough for you to feel you really knew her, so there was still a mystery to her.

VENTRELLA:  So give me a hint of the plot and make me want to read another Oz book!

SPOOR:  The basic plot of POLYCHROME is simple: two of the oldest enemies of the heroes of Oz join forces and use a revised version of a previously almost-successful plan which allows them to actually conquer Oz, including putting all the original heroes — Dorothy, Ozma, the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, Trot, Glinda, the Wizard, et. — out of the picture. polyPolychrome’s the only character who manages to get in and out of Oz during the disaster to deliver intelligence to her father, the Lord of the Rainbow, as to what was happening, and how — just possibly — Oz can be saved. In POLYCHROME, it’s explicit that Oz itself is the center of the Faerie realms, so its fall has terrible implications for all of Faerie. Part of the prophecy that guides them requires, of course, another Mortal from the Outside World to help them — that’s been pretty much a constant for Oz — and eventually Polychrome has to go and find that Mortal. He’s … not exactly what she was hoping for.

VENTRELLA:  A new character of your own creation?

SPOOR:  Yes, and as this is a book aimed at an older audience (adults rather than children) an adult mortal rather than the children usually the focus of the main Oz books. As I said, it was rather unabashedly a Mary Sue, so the fact that Erik Medon’s first name is the same as my middle one is not coincidence. That was one factor that kept me from trying to even submit it for publication for a long time.

VENTRELLA:  Was it difficult writing a character you didn’t create? Did you feel limited in any way?

SPOOR: As a fanfic writer, no, I’ve had lots of experience doing this. To me, it’s a matter of getting my head around the world in which the character exists. It’s a lot more limiting if you’re trying to insert the adventure into the middle of some part of the canon — that is, if you were to write an adventure that you wanted to take place in between some other known set of stories — because then you have to maintain consistency between both forward and backward chronologies. But with POLYCHROME, I was doing pretty much the same thing I did with my wife when writing our Saint Seiya magnum opus of fanfic — taking an established universe and then building something new out of it from the foundation that was supplied. That basically means I had the freedom to create the ongoing story structure without worrying that it would collide with something else, as long as I stayed consistent with the original (as much as that was possible, of course; Baum wasn’t terribly concerned with consistency and so there were a lot of places I had to decide “okay, this part is true, this part was just made up by Baum”, or “this was close, but the truth was this, because he was writing a children’s book…”)

VENTRELLA:  What is it about Oz that still interests us?

SPOOR:  The Oz books were the Harry Potter of their day, something a lot of people don’t realize; at their peak, they were translated into over 40 languages and their releases were major events in the book world.

This wasn’t an accident. There’s a lot of powerful elements of the Oz books, for anyone willing to pick them up and read. paradigmOne of them, especially for people thinking back to the era in which they were written, is the focus on strong female characters. Dorothy Gale changes Oz pretty much single-handed through her courage and forthright approach to things. The ruler of Oz is Ozma (a beautiful girl fairy who was once a boy — a boy who was the main character of one entire Oz novel until he was changed back to his/her true form at the very end; talk about mind-blowing stuff for a kid to encounter years ago). Other books have Betsy Bobbin and Trot, and side characters such as Polychrome, Glinda, and even Jinjur show that women are at least as much the movers and shakers of Faerie as are men.

Unlike the movie, the books depict Oz as completely real, which is very important. Dorothy wasn’t going through some kind of dream therapy in THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, she was going through real and dangerous adventures on a quest to return home. This adventure changes her, and those she meets, and she finds herself on other adventures many times — ones that often have quite creepy, even horrific, imagery associated with them. Oz and its environs, despite the often childish surface appearance, are neither safe nor easily comprehended.

This allows the books to retain a certain power, an ability to interest and hold interest, that less complex children’s works have trouble managing. This isn’t to say they’re without flaws; the language is often outdated, and there are some quite obviously sexist and racist components that can make a modern reader wince, but if you can get past that they’re still very strong works.

There have been a lot of Oz follow-ons over the years, as well as re-interpretations of Oz . As a side note, one of the things that makes POLYCHROME different is that it is neither a follow-on for children, nor a drastic re-imagination of Oz, nor a parody or deconstruction, which pretty much covers all of the later Oz-based works I know of. It’s a serious adult novel that tries to take as much of the original works seriously as possible.

I really don’t like deconstructions much in general, and deconstructions of Oz tend to really push my buttons. I can’t read Maguire’s WICKED and sequels; it’s clear he’s read lots of Oz, but what he’s doing to Oz makes me froth at the mouth. He’s a good writer — I could tell that much from the parts I could make myself read — I just can’t deal with the approach.

To my surprise, the SciFi channel Oz reimagining “Tin Man” actually worked well for me. It looked like it would be a total trainwreck, but the more I watched the more I realized there was some very much Oz-like material underneath, and there were some nods and comments that showed the makers were aware of the books — something that’s not all that common these days, alas.

Philip Jose Farmer’s A BARNSTORMER IN OZ is another one that I can’t stand. castawayFarmer’s got some particular approaches he tends to use when he’s re-imagining other people’s works (as he’s done with Tarzan, Doc Savage, Etc.) and for some it works; for Oz, his approach makes me start waving a sword and shouting “BURN THE BLASPHEMER”.

Some of the later follow-on books worked fairly well; there’s a generally accepted “larger canon” beyond Baum’s original 14 books which is the “Famous Forty”, and I really like the last one of those, MERRY-GO-ROUND IN OZ. A lot of the child-targeted ones have been written by people well educated in Oziana and thus are reasonably strong entries on their own to the mythos of Oz.

VENTRELLA:  I do recall being surprised as a kid when I read the original book and realized it wasn’t a dream after all. What did you think of Disney’s “Return to Oz” back in the 80s? It bombed but I recall enjoying that tremendously when I saw it in the theater.

SPOOR:  “Return to Oz” was an exceedingly clever movie, combining parts of THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ and OZMA OF OZ (the second and third books) while trying to tie it in with the original movie. I liked it quite a bit, although anyone getting the mythology of Oz from that movie is going to be pretty confused if they go back and read the books. It is, however, reasonably “Ozzy” and most Ozites I know find it pretty good as well.

VENTRELLA:  Any other Oz books or films you’d like to discuss?

SPOOR:  Most of my Oz focus is on the original Baum books, of which there were 14. My favorites are probably THE LOST PRINCESS OF OZ, which features one of the two main villains of POLYCHROME, and RINKITINK OF OZ, which has a lot of significant information relevant to POLYCHROME too. Oddly, one of my least-favorite of the original 14, THE TIN WOODMAN OF OZ, provided me with my second villain. I actually can’t think of any other really significant Oz-related material that I have personally seen. There have been a few animated series, at least one from Japan that is supposedly quite good, but I’ve never seen any of them.

VENTRELLA: So let’s talk about the publication of the book. You have an agent; you have a publisher; why did you decide to self-publish this one?

SPOOR:  In short, because no publisher would take it. Several of them expressed some interest, and one held onto it for almost two years waffling about whether they would or wouldn’t, but in the end they said “no”. Much of this had to do with the fact, as I mentioned before, that this is neither fish nor fowl from the point of view of publishers. Mari Ness mentioned the same thing in her review of Polychrome; it simply doesn’t fit in any of the categories that people would expect to find “Oz” stuff in — reimagining, parody/deconstruction, or straight-up follow-on.

VENTRELLA:  Plus it was for adults.

SPOOR:  That’s exactly why it’s neither fish nor fowl. It’s a book that takes Baum’s canon as seriously as possible, while telling a story that full-grown people can read without saying “really, it’s for my kids”.

VENTRELLA:  So you did a Kickstarter. How did you publicize it? Do you consider it successful?

SPOOR:  I publicized the Kickstarter basically by mentioning it in as many places as I could, having people who’d expressed an interest in it to at least push it where they could, and putting up a Project Wonderful ad campaign for it. GCAcoverWhich ones were most successful, I don’t know.

As a published author, I do enjoy a certain advantage in this area in that I have a fair number of people familiar with my work and thus with a reasonable confidence that they can rely on my writing to entertain them. Yes, it was quite successful; not only did I make the base goal, I also made the first “stretch” goal which allowed me to get a cover from the legendary Bob Eggleton.

VENTRELLA: Getting an Eggleton cover is indeed an accomplishment! So this is a PoD? Who do you have publishing it?

SPOOR:  It is indeed, and the resulting cover is just stunningly gorgeous. It is both an ebook and PoD. There are three separate physical versions — the Trade Paper, which is from CreateSpace, a regular HC from Lightning Source, and a very fancy deluxe hardcover with dust jacket from Lulu. Oddly, individual customers can order the TP or the super deluxe HC themselves, but not the regular HC.

VENTRELLA:  So are you satisfied with this? Do you think you’d do this again?

SPOOR:  I’m overall satisified with the outcome, though I’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way. Yes, I will likely do this again with things my current publisher won’t take; currently that’s two works, one a superhero-based novel and one that’s a somewhat peculiar space opera. (I find I cannot entirely predict what Baen will take; sometimes I send them things thinking “They’ll take this in a shot” and they say “nah, not our thing”, and other times I send in something thinking “Not in a million years” and they send me a contract).

VENTRELLA:  So what’s in your future? What are you working on now?

SPOOR:  Well, the second book in the Balanced Sword trilogy, PHOENIX IN SHADOW, is coming out soon (May 5th). I’ve just turned in the conclusion to the trilogy, PHOENIX ASCENDANT, so I figure that should be out around a year later.

I’m currently working on three books: CASTAWAY ODYSSEY, a sequel to CASTAWAY PLANET, answering the question at the end of the first book as to just who “Someone else” was that was on the planet our castaways were on; CHALLENGES OF THE DEEPS: Third in the Arenaverse, where I’m going to have Ariane and company carry through on their promise to Orphan and go with him to a mysterious destination in the depths of the Arena; PRINCESS HOLY AURA: One of those things that I was sure Baen wouldn’t touch in a thousand years, Princess Holy Aura is the first in what will hopefully be a series called “The Ethical Magical Girl,” which will examine the Magical Girl or Mahou Shoujo genre from a written novel perspective, with a hopefully unique point of view.

VENTRELLA:  Let’s talk about PHOENIX IN SHADOW. Tell me what that is about!shadow

SPOOR:  PHOENIX IN SHADOW continues the adventures of Kyri Vantage, last Justiciar (holy warrior) of the dying god Myrionar, and her companions Tobimar Silverun (voluntarily exiled prince of Skysand in search of his people’s original homeland) and Poplock Duckweed (intelligent Toad with a nose for trouble) as they try to discover the true source of the corruption that destroyed the other Justiciars and is apparently connected with worldwide attacks on other countries. They must enter the dark and terrifying Rivendream Pass to a place said to be filled with monstrous creatures and evil, Moonshade Hollow. But what they find there is something utterly beyond their expectations … and a trap that they cannot imagine.

This is a story I started writing back in 1991, and have been waiting to tell ever since. I think PHOENIX IN SHADOW is a better book than PHOENIX RISING was, and PHOENIX ASCENDANT may be better yet.

One thing any reader can look forward to in PHOENIX IN SHADOW is that you finally get a look at what I call a Dragon.

VENTRELLA:  But no phoenix?

SPOOR:  Kyri Vantage is the Phoenix Justiciar (all the Justiciars have bird-themed armor and names), and you’ll get some of that imagery too, although her real “Phoenix” scene is in the next book.

Ryk and I on a panel together at Albacon 2010

Ryk and I on a panel together at Albacon 2010


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