MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Bernie Mojzes is a writer and editor, responsible for a variety of stories ranging from fantasy and science fiction to horror to erotica, and even some non-genre work. He’s a friend who I see regularly at conventions, and has contributed some amazing and captivating stories my own TALES OF FORTANNIS series. In his copious spare time, he edits Unlikely Story.
Bernie, How did you first become interested in writing?
BERNIE MOJZES: I read voraciously as a kid, from day one of “Dick and Jane” when I finished the book while the other kids were trying to figure out page 3 (and was then told by the teacher that I was never to read faster than the other kids again. I wish I could have been there when my dad discussed that with the teacher.). But seriously, I loved reading, loved falling into those new and interesting worlds, and for as long as I’ve been reading, I’ve wanted to be one of those people who can create that sense of wonder in others.
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?
MOJZES: Ah, the nature/nurture question. There’s a massive difference between being a writer (being able to use written language to clearly and convincingly convey an idea) and being a storyteller (being able to create an interesting narrative that captivates an audience), and in the intersection of those two things is that creature that most people call “a writer.” Within that intersection, there are three major things that are necessary:
* a willingness to learn the craft (everything from basic grammar to how to incorporate beats and cadance into your prose)
* cultivation of the imagination
* observation and transformation of the world around you
* an openness to hearing critique
Yeah, I know. That’s four things. I can count. I swear.
Different people’s brains work in different ways. How we observe, how we perceive and what interpretations we make of those perceptions, and how we process and integrate and assimilate that information. And that’s not all, but it’s also how we connect the dots between that, what we’ve learned in the past, and what we will learn in the future, and then how we use all that to construct new worlds and new characters and new stories. Some people will weave intricate multilayered tapestries while others write linear, full-throttle with guns a-blazin’ adventures. What’s the right approach? There is none; there’s only the approach that works best for that particular writer.
If you can figure out the way your brain works best, and then train to minimize your weaknesses, and do the hard work of the three (4) things I listed above, I think most people can become good writers. But there are no shortcuts. It’s hard work – harder than most folks realize – and in the end, a lot of aspiring writers falter because they aren’t willing to do the work.
VENTRELLA: Tell us about your latest work!
MOJZES: Last October I had a story in the debut issue of Betwixt Magazine called “The Red Danube,” available here. This is the most difficult and unflinching piece I’ve had published, and I’m very proud of it. Technique-wise, it was a challange and a blast to write. I wanted to do two things simultaneously: pull the reader close into the the most intimate thoughts and actions of the characters while simultaneously pushing the reader away, holding the reader at a distance. Since one of my weaknesses is talking about my own work, its probably better to point you at a review of it up at ChiZine, which starts:
No end-of-year round up would be complete without mentioning Bernie Mojzes’s “The Red Danube” (Betwixt Issue 1, Fall 2013). This story is something else.
Charlotte Ashley reads deeply, and writes insightful reviews; she’s worth following closely.
VENTRELLA: How did you decide upon the theme for your magazine? I mean, really, bugs?
MOJZES: Hm. Yes, bugs. The magazine started its life as The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, a biannual online magazine dedicated to stories involving bugs. How we came up with that is a long and sordid tale that involves, well … it’s long and sordid, and since this is a PG13 blog, let’s just leave it at that. Ultimately, we decided that we wanted to see what we could do with a really unusual and specific theme. There was the danger, of course, that everyone would look at it and think, eww, bugs, I’ll send my horror story about spiders. Fortunately, the writing community came through for us, sending us, yes, some horror stories, but also stories about love and loss, death and transformation. About race relations and science and society and historical revisionism. Interestingly, by focusing in on such a seemingly narrow, weird theme, we’ve been able to put together issues of astounding diversity.
VENTRELLA: How has it been received?
MOJZES: Really well, surprisingly. When we first opened up for submissions, we were terrified of the grand experiment being a flop, but from Issue 1 on, we’ve had good to excellent reviews. We’ve had stories by some of the more interesting authors on the scene today. Stories that have appeared in our pages have gone on to make honorable mention lists and appear in Best of Year anthologies.
VENTRELLA: You’re expanding, though. Tell us about your new endeavor.
MOJZES: Expanding? Diversifying is probably a better word. In 2013 we decided that we’d offer new and interesting (for us, and hopefully for others) games to play. With this decision, we realized that The Journal of Unlikely Entomology was no longer properly descriptive, so we’ve gone with “Unlikely Story.” Under the Unlikely Story umbrella, we’ll continue to put out one issue of Unlikely Entomology, and also one issue of The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography (stories involving cryptography, ciphers, hacking, etc.), and one other issue. The first of those was The Journal of Unlikely Architecture (stories about buildings); the second will be The Journal of Unlikely Cartography (stories involving maps). Cryptography will be coming out in February, and we’re currently accepting submissions for the next Entomology issue.
MOJZES: Co-writing a story is an interesting process. I wrote “Embarassing Relations” with Bob Norwicke, a friend of mine from an old D&D campaign. He’s since moved to a different state, and we’d lost touch, but he had this brilliantly twisted character in the game that I wanted to use as a foil for my protagonist. I found Bob online and asked if he’d mind me stealing his character. That’s how I found out that Bob’s also a writer, and we decided to give co-authoring a try. I sent him a rough one paragraph concept for the story, he liked it, so I wrote an opening scene, written from my protagonist’s POV. Sent it to Bob, who wrote the next scene from his protagonist’s POV. From there we alternated. Some of what we did was writing toward the conclusion, writing to move the plot along. But some of what we did was writing a scene that intentionally put the other’s protagonist into a bind. This was the challenge — write your way out of the bind while still moving the plot along. That created some really interesting and unexpected twists that, I think, led us to bring the story to places we might not have otherwise discovered.
We did establish some ground rules. First was that I had veto power (because it was my story idea), and would eventually do an editing pass to make the story stylistically cohesive. Second, either of us could say “my character wouldn’t do that,” and offer rewrite suggestions. Third, both of us were free to re-write any dialog that the other author put in our character’s mouth.
Other than that, we created a vague outline early on (which included the phrase “hijinx ensue” multiple times) – left intentionally vague in order for us to both have the freedom to play within the plot and let the plot evolve.
VENTRELLA: How do you make your protagonist a believable character? And what’s the best way to make the antagonist a believable character?
MOJZES: Okay, first thing is, these two are secretly the same question, and I’d expand that out to include the secondary and tertiary characters that appear in your work. All of these characters have, to the degree allowable by the point of view from which the story is told and the amount of time they have on the page, be as fully developed and “real” as possible.
First thing to remember is that every character is the protagonist of their own story. So whenever anyone does anything, it has to make sense for that individual to be doing that. Sometimes you find yourself writing a scene where the needy, self-absorbed and completely narcissistic friend of a friend suddenly does something immensely selfless in order to move a plot point along, you’ve got to take a step back and rethink. Maybe you need to rethink the character. Maybe you have to rethink how you get through that plot point.
But most importantly, remember that nobody is perfect. If you have a character that always does the right thing (or that always does the wrong thing, in the case of the villain), you end up with a caricature, not a character. Good people have flaws and failings. Bad people have good in them. That’s what it means to be human. You have to show that humanity in your characters.
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?
MOJZES: A character can be larger than life but still be believable. That’s the trick, isn’t it? Finding a character that’s big enough to be interesting but human enough to be believable.
Writers are told to “write what you know.” What does this mean to you?
Not much. I think as advice goes, it’s easily taken to mean that you should know your proper place and not dare step beyond it. All that leads to is solipsism. I think reversing it – know what you write – is more interesting. By which I mean, research deeply and respectfully, and with an open mind. Don’t be superficial, and don’t look to media representations of something for reality. Think three-dimensionally, and consider the wider context.
VENTRELLA: What do you do to avoid “info dumps”?
MOJZES: Whenever possible, I try to break the info dumps into smaller pieces and incorporate that into dialogue or action. Sometimes you’re stuck with an expository lump, though – information that you just need to get across to the reader, and can’t for whatever reason (word count limits, for example) deal with it more elegantly.
So, lets say there’s a 10 sentence paragraph that fills a whole page and sits like a giant indigestable lump in the middle of your story. So first, for each piece of information, decide whether or not the reader really needs it. (You may need someone else to point these out to you). Cut the bits that aren’t needed.
Now you have a 7 sentence info dump. See if there’s any of that that can be incorporated naturally into dialogue or action.
Now you have a 5 sentence info dump paragraph. Break it into 2 paragraphs and separate them with one or more paragraphs of dialogue and/or action.
Lastly, rewrite those two paragraphs so that the info that is dumped is done strongly through your POV character’s perspective. So, not just [fact], but [fact as your character perceives it]. By doing this, you’re taking what is largely an uninteresting declarative statement of fact and making it do double duty as something that reveals character. And like magic, you’ve turned a giant, boring info dump into interesting, compelling prose.
VENTRELLA: As an editor, what is the biggest problem you have when dealing with authors?
MOJZES: We have blessedly not really had any major problems with authors. The biggest problem has been technological, where the author wasn’t seeing all of the edits we had sent them, either due to old software, file format incompatibilities, or whatever. And that ultimately leads to misunderstandings and aggravation on all sides. Probably the most problematic of these issues comes from authors having their software set to use .docx format by default, and we suggest that people change the default settings to use .doc or .rtf instead.
VENTRELLA: In this market, with the publishing industry changing daily, how important is the small press?
MOJZES: In an environment in with that large presses are contracting and consolidating, small press is critically important. Well, first, we should really define some terms. There are small presses like Small Beer and Subterranean that have significant resources and ability to put books into bookstores, and micro-presses which perhaps only put out a few titles a year. I think it’s important to understand that distinction, because they really fulfill a different need in the market.
The are three technological innovations that allow small presses to be successful with books that a large press won’t touch: Print-on-Demand, The Internet, and e-books. POD and e-books allow small press to reduce or eliminate the need to order and warehouse large print runs of books that aren’t guaranteed to sell. The Internet allows people to find obscure and niche books, leading to something called “The Long Tail.” Small and micro-press can cater to niche markets and be successful selling smaller unit counts.
This creates opportunities for a wide variety of authors who simply could not be successful under a large press marketing scheme.