Interview with Catherine Stine

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I am pleased to be interviewing Catherine Stine, writer of suspense and speculation. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Her newly released crossover sci-fi thriller is RUBY’S FIRE.

Catherine, tell us about this new series. What makes your series different?

CATHERINE STINE: It takes place on a future earth (2099), and the world has suffered from extreme weather and border wars, but it is not an oppressively dystopian atmosphere. There are signs of renewal. I’m more interested in what takes place during a perilously delicate recovery, and what kinds of events and people affect it.

VENTRELLA: My fantasy novels are also considered “young adult” books, primarily because of the age of the protagonist. What else makes a story YA?

STINE: The hallmarks of YA are yes, the age of the protagonist (14 to 18), but the pacing must be fast and the plot high stakes. There is always a romance, yet the romance is not graphic. Themes are geared to teen concerns. RUBY’S FIRE addresses drug use, core identity issues, runaways, love triangles, extreme peer competition and genetic mutation. How’s that for suspense?!

VENTRELLA: When you’re approaching a story, how do you begin — characters, plot or themes? What’s your writing style? Do you outline or just jump in?

STINE: I begin with a compelling situation and characters. Then I construct the plot. I always outline, and I do thematic freewrites. The more I think through the novel and outline beforehand, the stronger and more focused the novel becomes. Rubys-FireI advise my students to outline, even a few lines per chapter. I encourage them to think of it as a fluid entity they can tweak as they go. This seems to help.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read?

STINE: I read adult and YA speculative fiction. That includes horror, sci-fi and techno thrillers. Occasionally I’ll read a literary mystery to study how to craft tension.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about how you got RUBY’S FIRE published.

STINE: I published Ruby’s Fire with my own imprint, Konjur Road Press. That said, I’ve also published with Random House, American Girl and Scholastic. I’m a hybrid author, meaning I’ve done it both ways, and would like to continue publishing both ways. Why not? I do have an agent. He’s okay with that.

VENTRELLA: What do you think we will see in the future of publishing?

STINE: I think more and more authors will publish both ways. Even well published authors are choosing to self-publish certain projects. For instance, one trend is to write a “short” or a novella with one of the characters in a novel, between longer projects, and self-publish the shorts. It satisfies readers while they wait for your longer opus.

VENTRELLA: Even authors with major publishers need to know how to market. What are the smartest things one can do to promote a book?

STINE: For RUBY’S FIRE, I’m doing a big blog tour. Last time I organized it all myself. This go-around I hired a book tour host. FireSeed One CoverBut from my first experience, I “met” so many great book reviewers that this time I was able to contact them again, and they were thrilled to read the next book, and also to blurb. People are very generous online and they love getting the word out about books they like. The funny thing is that I have a friend who is published with one of the Big 6, and her publicist is approaching the very same bloggers I have a relationship with. The whole process has become democratized. It’s also good to do giveaways on Goodreads, and to host other authors.

VENTRELLA: You’ve received quite a few good reviews and awards for your work. How did those come about? Do you have to search them out or do they contact you?

STINE: Write the best book you can, and good reviews will follow. I did apply to certain indie award sites; there are good ones, and questionable ones. Do your homework. More and more, these organizations and awards will be helpful to readers to discern the best of the indies.

Thanks for interviewing me on your blog, Michael!

Interview with Author Myke Cole

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author Myke Cole, who constantly upstages me whenever we’re on a panel together at a convention. Headshots of Myke ColeAs a secu­rity con­tractor, gov­ern­ment civilian and mil­i­tary officer, Myke’s career has run the gamut from Coun­tert­er­rorism to Cyber War­fare to Fed­eral Law Enforce­ment. Thank goodness for fantasy.

Myke, let’s start with the big news about your latest book FORTRESS FRONTIER. Give us a hint of what it’s about.

MYKE COLE: FORTRESS FRONTIER is the second book in my SHADOW OPS military fantasy series. It tells the story of a military bureaucrat suddenly forced to take command of a combat outpost against hopeless odds. The book explores the question we all ask ourselves: how would I stand up in a crisis? What would I do if I were truly tested?

Oscar Britton, the main character in CONTROL POINT (SHADOW OPS #1) is a character in FORTRESS FRONTIER, but not the protagonist. I always intended to use a ensemble cast in this series, and FORTRESS FRONTIER is the first step in that direction.

VENTRELLA: How are you promoting it?

COLE: The same way I promoted CONTROL POINT: I’m carpet bombing the Internet with guest blog posts, interviews, giveaway contests and excerpts. I just put out a book trailer. I’m getting out to cons as much as I can. I just got back from Confusion, and I’ll be hitting Boskone and Lunacon in the next two months.

But the biggest thing I’m doing? Not being a dick. I don’t bear-bait or take polarizing stances in public. I don’t tear other people down. I respond to my fans when they email or @ me. I have adhesive backed bookplates that I can sign and send to people if they want an autographed copy of my work, but don’t want to pay the high price of shipping a book back and forth. I generally try to be accessible, available and kind to people, whether they’re industry pros, personal friends or fans I’ve never met before. That’s rarer than you’d think, and it goes a long way.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the Shadow Ops series.

COLE: Peter V. Brett described it best when he called it “Blackhawk Down meets the X-Men.” It’s as honest a look I can provide into how the US military would deal with the existence of magic. It deals with some tough issues like the conflict between liberty and security in a free society, but it’s also crammed full of giant explosions and helicopter gunships squaring off against rocs. Win-win, if you ask me.

VENTRELLA: Do you have a set series in mind? In other words, do you have a plan for a specific number of books in the series?

COLE: I’m under contract for 6 books right now. BREACH ZONE will complete the arc of this particular story, but the other 3 will also be SHADOW OPS books. ShadowOps_FortressFrontier_US_Final1Books 4 and 5 will be prequels, taking place in the early days of the Great Reawakening before CONTROL POINT. Book 6 will follow an ancillary character from FORTRESS FRONTIER on his own adventure.

After that, I’ll take a look at the state of publishing and book selling, see how fans are reacting to my work, and decide where to go next.

VENTRELLA: I have to admit that “military fantasy” is a genre with which I am unfamiliar. Was that a hard sell to agents and editors?

COLE: I only ever tried to sell it to one agent – Joshua Bilmes. He has been a dear friend for over a decade now, and from our first conversation, I knew he was the only person in the world I wanted to represent me. He rejected 3 novels from me over 7 years before finally agreeing to represent CONTROL POINT, and a lot of people suggested I try other agents. But I never did. It was going to be Joshua, or it was never going to be.

Editors were a different story. They did balk at a blending of two genres that appeal to disparate audiences. When CONTROL POINT went out to market, it garnered rejection after rejection, many with comments like, “the story seems unsure of its voice.” I had almost given up hope when Anne Sowards made the offer.

VENTRELLA: How did you obtain Joshua Bilmes?

COLE: How did I “obtain” him? That makes it sound like I have him trussed up in my desk drawer. I knew of Joshua by doing research on who was representing authors I admired. I then deliberately sought him out at a SFWA party at Philcon in 2003. Fortunately, we hit it off amazingly, stayed up talking until 3 AM, and have been close friends ever since. As I said earlier, Joshua rejected 3 novels over 7 years from me. All that time we were visiting one another (I lived in DC at the time), exchanging phone calls and emails. The friendship was always separate from our business relationship.

But, ultimately, how did I “obtain” him? I wrote a good book and sent it to him. That’s the only way anyone ever gets an agent. There is no end run.

VENTRELLA: It appears that you started off, like me, writing mostly nonfiction. Do you feel that the skills learned in writing nonfiction are comparable to writing fiction?

COLE: In the bones, sure. Good nonfiction requires solid prose styling and feel for rhythm, the beats of your sentences. You have to be interesting and construct a narrative in essays just as much as in fiction.

The real difference for me is in Law-Enforcement/Military/Intelligence writing (reports, orders, plans, analysis, etc) that is a totally different animal.

VENTRELLA: What was your first published piece of fiction and how did you get that published?

COLE: Let’s talk about the first piece of fiction I had professionally published. That would be “Blood and Horses,” a military SF short that took 3rd in the Writers of the Future contest and was published in Vol. XIX. wotf191I did it the old fashioned way, I entered a story every quarter, without fail, for 5 years.

Now, it was a great experience and there’s no doubt that it launched my career. I learned a ton out in LA, developed some critical contacts, and got the shot in the arm I needed to keep going. Unfortunately, I later learned that the contest is not firewalled from the Church of Scientology, and there are personal and financial ties there. I certainly won’t judge the beliefs of the church (or of any faith), but there’s enough reporting of physical/financial abuse tied to them that I am now very uncomfortable with having participated. There’s nothing I can do about it now, other than caution new writers who are considering getting involved.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about writing. Are you someone who outlines heavily or are you a “pantser”?

COLE: I am an uber outliner. I frequently have outlines as long as 50-100 pages before I write a lick of prose. I also submit my outlines for feedback before beginning prose. This way, I don’t wind up with a problem later in the manuscript that forces me to throw out 30,000 words at the 11th hour. Oh, wait. That happens all the time anyway. *sigh*

VENTRELLA: Do you start with an idea, a setting, or a character?

COLE: In the case of the SHADOW OPS series, I started with an idea: “How would the US military handle magic?”

VENTRELLA: What sort of research do you do when building a character (or a setting or plotline, for that matter)?

I use the Internet almost exclusively. It’s rare I can’t find intimate details on almost any topic (I had to research heavy crane operations for BREACH ZONE). When I hit walls on Wikipedia, I turn to friends and sometimes acquaintances and fans I know through social media.

When all else fails, I make it up. These are fantasy novels.

VENTRELLA: What techniques do you use to make your hero someone with whom the reader can relate?

COLE: The irony here is that the technique I used arguably failed. I made Oscar Britton, the protagonist of CONTROL POINT as human as possible. He’s wavering, indecisive, terrified of the decisions that face him. I feel confident that is an accurate portrayal of how a person of his background (bad family, no sense of rootedness) would handle the situation he finds himself in, but it’s also the most consistent criticism of the novel. In the end, I don’t think readers want real characters. They want dramatic, inspiring characters that feel real. There’s a big difference there.

VENTRELLA: What do you do to establish a believable fantasy world? In other words, how can you introduce the fantasy elements into the story and make them real without relying on info dumps?

COLE: I cheated. I use epigraphs at the top of each chapter that allow me to engage in as much exposition as I want without getting accused of info dumping. I mask it all in the form of quotes, newsclips, etc, but the truth is that it’s all just stuff I needed the reader to know and couldn’t think of any other way to get it to them.

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

COLE: First off, 2nd and 3rd drafts are hors d’oeuvres. CONTROL POINT went through 14 drafts. ShadowOpsCoverFORTRESS FRONTIER had 9. BREACH ZONE is currently on its 7th. And what is my main goal? To make the book awesome.

VENTRELLA: All writers basically write what they would like to read. So what do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

COLE: Totally disagree. Plenty of writers try to strike out and do something new, and others write what they think will sell. I certainly won’t pass judgment on either decision, but that’s not what I do.

My favorite authors? There isn’t room to list them all, but here’s a few: Peter V. Brett, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, George R. R. Martin, Richard K. Morgan, Naomi Novik, China Mieville, James Clavell, Bernard Cornwell, Jack Campbell, Mark Lawrence. Believe me, I could go on.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give an aspiring author that you wish someone had given you?

Stop writing short stories. There’s like 3 people in the entire world who read short stories for pleasure. Everyone else is an aspiring writer looking for the magic key. You want to be a novelist so write novels. If you write a dynamite novel, nobody is going to care that you didn’t have a story published in F&SF or Realms of Fantasy. They’re going to buy and publish your novel because it’s awesome. Stop wasting time and learn your craft.

VENTRELLA: With the publishing industry in constant change, do you think the small press has become more acceptable, prominent, and/or desirable for beginning writers?

COLE: No.

VENTRELLA: Do you ever advise self-publishing?

Yes. I think that self-publishing is a perfectly viable way to go about bringing your work to market. The trick is making sure that you actually have work that’s good enough to bring to market and you’re just an unrecognized genius, vice doing an end-run around the bald fact that your work just isn’t there yet.

I absolutely cannot judge my own work. I need an expert to give it the nod. Self-publishing also requires a lot of project management skills. You have to be your own art director, and you have to supervise the copy-editor and the proof reader. You have to get ISBNs, you have to convert and format your text. You have to get it uploaded and figure out a good price point.

That’s a shit ton of work. I’d far rather give a professional a percentage of my profits and let them deal with all that crap.

VENTRELLA: What other projects are you working on?

COLE: After that big speech I just made about short stories and self-publishing, I’ve just completed a novelette set in the SHADOW OPS universe. It’s a piece of backstory for BREACH ZONE told from the goblin point of view. I briefly considered sending it out to short story markets, but was turned off by the market policies (no simultaneous submissions). So, now I’m toying with the idea of self-publishing it, or using my literary agency’s eBook program (for which they charge the standard fee of 15%).

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Interview with Author Donna Galanti

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing Donna Galanti. Donna is the author of the paranormal suspense novel A HUMAN ELEMENT (Echelon Press). She has a B.A. in English and a background in marketing. She is a member of International Thriller Writers, The Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group, and Pennwriters. Her blog is here. You can connect with Donna here on Twitter and Facebook and purchase her book here!

Donna, your first novel has just been released. Tell us about it!

DONNA GALANTI: Absolutely!

In my paranormal suspense novel A HUMAN ELEMENT, Laura Armstrong’s friends and adoptive family members are being murdered, and despite her unique healing powers, she can do nothing to stop it. The savage killer haunts her dreams, tormenting her with the promise that she is next. Determined to find the killer, she follows her visions to the site of a crashed meteorite –- her hometown. There, she meets Ben Fieldstone. In a race to stop a mad man, they unravel a frightening secret that binds them together. But the killer’s desire to destroy Laura face-to-face leads to a showdown that puts Laura and Ben’s emotional relationship and Laura’s pure spirit to the test. With the killer closing in, Laura discovers her destiny is linked to his and she has two choices –- redeem him or kill him.

Readers who devour paranormal books with a smidge of horror and steam will enjoy A HUMAN ELEMENT, the new novel about loss, redemption, and love.

Here’s what reviewers are saying:

“A HUMAN ELEMENT is an elegant and haunting first novel. Unrelenting, devious but full of heart. Highly recommended.” – Jonathan Maberry, New York Times best-selling author of ASSASSIN’S CODE and DEAD OF NIGHT

“A HUMAN ELEMENT is a haunting look at what it means to be human. It’s a suspenseful ride through life and love…and death, with a killer so evil you can’t help but be afraid. An excellent read.” –Janice Gable Bashman, author of WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE, nominated for a Bram Stoker Award.

VENTRELLA: How did the idea originate?

GALANTI: It came to me in a flash from nowhere 15 years ago driving to work. I wrote the entire outline on my lap as I drove (dangerously) and shelved it until 2 years ago.

VENTRELLA: Do you tend to outline heavily or just jump right in? What is your writing style?

GALANTI: I do outline but when I over-outline I can’t get started. I tend to write an 8-10 page preliminary synopsis, bulleted chapter outline, and a 1-page worksheet detailing each character. I like to write “from the dark places” in the third person. A HUMAN ELEMENT has a ton of dark in it from murder and mystery with an evil paranormal thread. However, I did challenge myself to write a middle grade adventure fantasy recently in the first person and had a lot of fun.

VENTRELLA: Aspiring authors often seem to think that writing a book is easy and your first one is sure to be a huge hit. What writing experience did you have prior to publication?

GALANTI: I definitely don’t think it’s easy or a sure thing to be a huge hit. Being a writer is constant learning and improving your craft. You may write a good book but you still need other elements like having professional editing skills, a good cover, and be marketing savvy. Before this novel came out I was writing in one way or another since I was seven. I majored in English and Journalism in college and did some news reporting for Gannett News Service. I eventually ended up in marketing communications and after several layoffs launched my own resume writing service and also became a freelance advertising copywriter. I closed up my resume business to write novels.

VENTRELLA: What was the biggest mistake you made when first starting out as a writer?

GALANTI: Writing a book before I learned the craft. I became involved with other writers and took writing workshops after I finished my first book. This required going back and fixing a ton of things! I don’t regret the learning that took place afterwards as I can now write a better book from the beginning. And hopefully keep learning and writing even better books. The sequel (in progress), A HIDDEN ELEMENT, starts out fast and dark and propels you into an evil underworld where chaos, despair, redemption, and murder reign.

VENTRELLA: OK, let’s be honest here — You (like me) are with a smaller, independent publisher. Of course, we’d both like to be with Random House or some other huge publisher, where we could be easily found in book stores. Did you make an effort to obtain an agent first and go the traditional route or did you instead look to the smaller publishing houses for your first venture?

GALANTI: I did submit to agents first, yes. I spent several months doing this and waiting on feedback from manuscript requests. However, I knew my premise was a harder sell for a debut author as it crosses genres in a blend of paranormal, romance with a smidge of horror and sci-fi. I believed in the story and so did Echelon Press, a small press with a solid 10 years in the industry. Karen Syed, the president, worked with me on developmental edits before I even signed so she was invested. I’m also not focused on “getting in every brick and mortar bookstore” in America. I am focused on being seen at the online bookstores.

VENTRELLA: What do you think are the advantages of a smaller publisher?

GALANTI: Definitely personal attention. I like that. I also like that Echelon Press honored my title and delivered on the cover I was pursuing. They listened to me as an author, and I was not treated as a product. I also have much leeway with my own marketing, and as a former marketer I like having that control.

These days, it takes much more to be a successful author than merely writing a good book. What efforts have you made to publicize yourself and do you think they have been worth your time?
With a book coming out, one in editing, and one being written – I’m finding out that this is only half my author time spent. The other half is “being seen.” And it’s absolutely worth the effort. I have an active blog where I post and host guest authors. I’m also active on Twitter, Facebook with a personal and author page, and GoodReads. It takes time to build relationships in all these places and manage them while promoting others too, yet I have met many supportive peers through these avenues and built a network of readers and professionals. I am currently running a blog tour (as seen here!) which involves multiple articles written, a grand giveaway, and a GoodReads giveaway. I also coordinated a book launch (4/21 at The Doylestown Bookshop) and wrote several press releases around the locales in A HUMAN ELEMENT.

VENTRELLA: I’ve met so many people who think self-publishing is the way to go, and I have tried to dissuade them of this idea. What is your opinion?

GALANTI: I honestly think a writer should start at the top and work their way down. It takes patience and waiting. Lots of waiting. I understand some people don’t want to wait. I gave myself a timeframe to look for agents and decided, after that time, it was best to go with a small press. I don’t regret it, as it allows me the ability to sell my books at conferences and be on conference panels. These are some things self published authors may not have access to. Yes, there is still a stigma. I also could not have become an accepted active member in International Thriller Writers if I self published. That being said, I see many authors with much success being self published. If you are marketing savvy I believe you can have success with it if you deliver a good product, great cover, and know how to be seen. Being a debut author, I think there are benefits to having a respected publisher standing behind you.

It’s the Characters, Stupid

As I write this, the last Harry Potter movie just opened. Harry Potter has made writer Jo Rowlings one of the richest people in the world, and deservedly so.

But why? People have written novels about kids going to magic schools before. Many of the plots are similar to standard fantasy fare, and in some cases even quite predictable. What did she do to make it all work so well?

It boils down to something successful authors understand: A story is not about what it’s about — it’s about the characters.

We go back to the books (and movies) we love not because of the idea behind the story, but because of the characters.

When ARCH ENEMIES came out (my first novel) the comments that pleased me most were from readers who talked about how much they liked Terin or Darlissa — how they related to them, and saw how they changed during the course of the story. This was something I specifically set out to accomplish: not just to create believable characters who didn’t act cliche, but also to remember that no matter how clever my plotline was, no matter how surprising my twist ending, it would mean nothing if the reader didn’t care about the characters.

At writers’ conferences and writing groups I’ve attended over the years, I’ve listened to and read works by aspiring authors that I know will never make it unless they realize this point. They have stories about monsters and gadgets and world-shaking events and the characters are secondary. The cleverest idea in the world won’t matter if no one cares what happens to your boring, uninteresting, or cliched hero.

Seriously, think about books you may have stopped reading because you became bored. Think about all those special effects movies that you watch once and never want to see again. I am willing to bet that there is one thing these have in common, and that is uninteresting characters.

I could go on and on — Entire books have been written about how to create believable characters in fiction, but it all boils down to you, the writer, remembering that the characters are the most important element of your story.

So create those characters that are larger than life. They should say clever things, perform amazing acts of bravery, never give up. They should be people we want to read about. (See my last blog on this subject!)

At the same time, they should have definite weaknesses. They should make mistakes, lose their temper, and act like real people act. They don’t have to be likable, just interesting! Sherlock Holmes has many character flaws, but he’s a fascinating character, isn’t he?

Note that I am not limiting this to your protagonist. Too often, writers create a likable good guy hero and then place that person against a “bad guy” who apparently exists only to do bad things. Instead, you should remember that your antagonist is the protagonist in his or her own story. Unless that character is insane in some way, they do not consider themselves evil. Think through their motivations, and give them good attributes to prevent them from being cliched and predictable. (This is a good subject for a future blog, because I could write much more on this topic!)

Just always remember: Your story is about characters.

Intrerview with Nebula nominated author Bud Sparhawk

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing three times Nebula finalist Bud Sparhawk today. He’s primarily known for his short fiction with heavy and hard science, but also for his humor (in particular his “Sam Boone” series).

Bud, although you have extolled the virtues of outlines, do you think it’s possible to write a great story without an outline?

BUD SPARHAWK: I’m not certain “extolled” is the right word. Certainly I’ve advocated paying considerable attention to a story’s structure – the sequencing of scenes, time frames, and points of view. I don’t think I’ve ever recommended preparing a formal outline where a story is described in detail, point by point.

My own style of writing is to set up the scenes I think the story needs, block in the characters, setting, and time, and then move things around to the way I want to tell the story. Many times I write quite a bit before breaking what I’ve done into key scenes and then add sketch ideas that fill in empty spots. It’s generally a messy back and forth process but it works for me.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever done so?

SPARHAWK: Written a great story or used an outline to write it? All three of my Nebula finalists were done sans outline – just bashing along until they felt complete. I wouldn’t call any of them “great” – entertaining maybe. The one story that I felt was “great” was “Bright Red Star” and which received almost no literary comment, except from David Hartwell who included it in his Years Best SF #14. This story has now appeared in several languages and on audio pubs, which is somewhat of an affirmation. It was my response to some of the hysteria surrounding 9/11.

VENTRELLA: You’ve concentrated almost entirely on short stories and novellas. What is it about the shorter form that appeals to you?

I’ve been blogging about this very subject on budsparhawk.blogspot.com for some time. One of my latest musings dwelled on the differences between novelists and we short people. Although there are clearly differences between the two camps, my conclusion was simply that that some do and some can’t: Temperament, patience, and economic necessity are probably involved in a writers choices, but the mix would vary considerably.

VENTRELLA: Many writers consider short stories to be harder than novels. What is your experience?

SPARHAWK: I don’t think “harder” is the distinction I’d make. Some writers find it impossible to describe anything in a single sentence while I find it difficult to drone endlessly on about anything because I’m always anxious to get to the payoff. In my opinion, brevity always makes a point sharper and I usually edit down to reach that clarity. For example, I recently turned in a 15k piece that was originally 33k in second draft and around 20k in the penultimate one.

When I started writing I could write a 5-7K story in a weekend and once wrote one – “Persistence” – that I later sold to Analog – in an evening. I like to deal with issues or ideas and the short form is ideal for that. Longer pieces deal more with character development or expansion of a situation. I’ve written several as yet unsold novels and have found developing increasing complexity that forces the word count ever upwards tedious, albeit interesting.

Dedicated novelists have told me that they cannot begin a story without discovering that complications arise and they are faced with an irresistible urge to explain, describe, or comment. Then too, other characters come along with their own damn issues, backgrounds, motives and … well, you see how that goes, with the inevitable result is other than short.

VENTRELLA: What usually comes first for you – an idea or a character?

SPARHAWK: The idea or concept, always. I see characters as vehicles that carry the ideas forward, and try to make them eloquent spokespersons for what I try to say.

VENTRELLA: We’ve met at various conventions over the years. Do you enjoy conventions and do you advise authors to attend them?

SPARHAWK: I’m just a ham and enjoy the spotlight, talking to fans, and especially having the opportunity to talk writerish with the other pros. I love the readings, especially by unfamiliar writers to me.

VENTRELLA: What’s your favorite convention experience?

SPARHAWK: The random discussions that arise in the hallways or in the dealers room have be my favorite experiences. I hardly ever leave one of these random discussions without a story idea or two.

VENTRELLA: I meet many authors who have gone the vanity press or self publishing route and then wonder why no one takes them seriously. What’s your opinion on self publishing?

SPARHAWK: The line between vanity and self-published has become very thin. Established writers are self-publishing collections, reverted novels, and even original works – all to take advantage of the opportunities eBooks have created. Some non-professionals (another vague term) have been highly successful with their “vanity” publishing. Results are mixed, but in most cases it seems to depend on the degree of self-promotion one is willing to undertake. Social networking seems key to success for both types.

VENTRELLA: Do you think there is a difference if an already established author self publishes new material?

SPARHAWK: If a writer has already established a reputation, then selling new material via POD or eBook should not be a problem. Otherwise you use up a lot of time, effort, and creative juice that could be used for improving your writing.

VENTRELLA: What bugs you most about the publishing industry and what would you change about it if you could?

The lengthy delays between submission and response, which is an unfortunate consequence of limited staff and/or time available to the publisher. The industry probably needs more underpaid English majors looking for “experience” in the publishing field.

Since most editors now accept electronic submissions I can easily see the day when some maven will design an app that evaluates e-manuscripts on the fly, all tailored to an editor’s preset specifications. That would certainly change the writing game for both writers and editors. Don’t know if this would make the publishers happy or not.

VENTRELLA: What do you like to read for pleasure?

SPARHAWK: Short stories, of course, and mostly SF, but I make an exception for anything by Terry Pratchett.

VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?

SPARHAWK: See above – “Bright Red Star.” Interestingly, I’ve written three more shorts in the same universe, two of which are in McPhail’s anthologies.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now?

SPARHAWK: I’ve a long novel in penultimate editing, four or five shorts that still need work, and getting as much of my published works into eBook formats as I have time for. The novel deals with the long term effects of human expansion into the universe and what exactly makes our descendants “human.”

VENTRELLA: Fantasy has grown tremendously in popularity over the past twenty or thirty years and now outsells science fiction. Why do you think this is? What is it about fantasy that appeals to readers that they can’t get from science fiction?

SPARHAWK: It is a puzzle that in these days of instant everything and twittering phrases that short fiction does not sell better. Steven King recently observed that much of the popular long form fiction has little substance but does carry the reader along in an engaging, but superficial narrative thread that provides an immersive experience. Summer reading at the beach, in other words. I find that much of the “epic” fantasy fits this description. Clearly, fantasy in general is not my cup of tea, but there are some fantasy works that rises above the rest – like Laura Anne Gilman’s Vineart series.

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

SPARHAWK: 1. Don’t give up your day job.

2. Put some time aside for writing every day.

3. Learn humility and to accept rejection gracefully.

4. Join SFWA as soon as you can.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you see aspiring authors make?

SPARHAWK: Endless rewriting in pursuit of perfection, which can never be achieved. The pursuit of “better” is ever the enemy of “good enough.” A writer should rewrite only until the piece achieves a satisfactory level in their own opinion and, of course, whenever an editor asks.

VENTRELLA: What question do you wish interviewers would ask you that they never do?

SPARHAWK: “Where do you get your Ideas?” to which I respond “a guy in New Jersey sends me two a week for five bucks.”. Ask a silly question …

Seriously though, no one ever asks how the magic is done and the toll it takes on family life, work, and socializing. I wrote for years while holding a fairly demanding job, raising a family, and dealing with the issues of aging parents, yet managed to eke out a few words each night, having them add up to some decent stories and a lot of less than sales worthy. The ideas bubbled up during my non-writing times and, if they were worthy of remembering, finally made it into a story. Truthfully, I have no idea where the ideas come from. I only know how much work it takes to turn them from daydreams to reality.

Interview with Lawrence M. Schoen

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am honored to be interviewing Hugo-nominated author Lawrence M. Schoen. Lawrence holds a PhD in cognitive psychology and spent ten years as a college professor. He’s also one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Klingon language. A few years back he started Paper Golem, a speculative fiction small press aimed at serving the niche of up-and-coming new authors as well as providing a market for novellas. In 2007 he was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer and in 2010 received a Hugo nomination for best short story. He’s the author Guest of Honor at Lunacon next weekend (March 18-20, 2011), where he’ll have a book launch for his second novel, BUFFALITO CONTINGENCY. (I’m just a regular guest, but I am on at least one panel with him!).

Lawrence, Do you enjoy conventions and do you advise authors to attend them?

LAWRENCE M. SCHOEN: I love conventions! Most of my friends are either authors or fans (or both) and they’re scattered all over. Conventions are often my only opportunity to see them and catch up. It’s become trite to talk about how writing is such a solitary experience and how only other authors can really relate to the tribulations of the life, but the reason it’s trite is because there’s so much truth in it. It’s incredibly comforting to settle in with other writers and listen as they share their own joys and complaints and be reminded that it’s actually a kind of club.

Back in my psychology days, I attended research conferences for much the same set of reasons. One of my graduate professors, a brilliant scholar named Thaddeus Cowan — the only person I know to have invented a new impossible figure! — told me that that when it comes to conferences and conventions you’re looking for three things: 1) meet up with an old friend, 2) make a new friend, and 3) come away with a fresh idea. If you do any two, it’s a good event, and if you manage all three, it’s great. Most conventions I’ve been to, I’ve been lucky enough to hit all three, over and over again.

Having said that, I don’t think every author should attend conventions. Conventions aren’t a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. I’m an extravert, a big guy with a loud voice. Having been a professor for ten years, I’m very comfortable standing in front of a room full of people and telling everyone what I think about something, at length. I’m completely at home in that kind of setting, but I know people who can’t abide crowds, let alone being trapped in a room with a bunch of loud people with big egos. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be an either/or kind of thing. I think you can be very successful as a writer without stepping into the spotlight and bloviating. A shyer author can attend a convention, hang out in the background and chat quietly with other authors and fans, attend functions and make connections. There’s plenty of room for variety, and even people like me get tired and calm down eventually and welcome a quiet conversation before the day’s out.

VENTRELLA: You are known in large part for your promotion and publication of Klingon translations of Shakespeare and other works. What led you to the interest in the language?

SCHOEN: I’ve always been fascinated with languages. I’m not necessarily particularly talented at them — it’s not like I have a great ear for languages, or learn them quickly, I just enjoy them. My academic expertise is in psycholinguistics. I stumbled into Klingon with the right set of skills at the beginning of the internet explosion. So I was in the right place at the right time. Traditionally, the two things that hinder any language, natural or constructed, are 1) time, and 2) distance. I became immersed in Klingon at the precise moment when these factors ceased to be an issue, when the technology and expertise allowed real time communication with people almost anywhere in the world, something that other constructed languages hadn’t previously enjoyed. It was like being on a linguistic rollercoaster, and the ride’s been going nonstop for twenty years!

VENTRELLA: You also established a small press company called “Paper Golem” a few years ago. What led you to that decision?

SCHOEN: I’m extraordinarily lucky. I have a good job that pays me a decent wage for part time work. That leaves me free to do things like write. A few years ago some members of Codex (an online community of writers) were kicking around ideas for generating more group identity, and I offered to edit a reprint anthology for them. When I looked at the numbers, I realized it wasn’t that much more time and money to set myself up to do additional books as it was to do just that one book. Basically, I was in a position to commit an act of “paying it forward” and that’s how Paper Golem came about. It’s not intended to make a lot of money. The goals of the press are much more modest. I’m very happy to have a book break even, and anything extra gets folded into the next project. We’ve put out four books to date, with another one due in May. And the last book, ALEMBICAL 2, has an original novella that’s up for a Nebula Award. As you can imagine I’m feeling pretty chuffed about that.

VENTRELLA: What works have you released through Paper Golem that have impressed you?

SCHOEN: We have two “series” that we do. First, I’m committed to providing a venue for novellas, because there aren’t a lot of places where you can sell a story that’s in the 20K – 40K word range, particularly if you’re not a Big Name Author. That’s what ALEMBICAL is for. Second, I like the idea of doing single author collections for writers who are producing incredible stories but haven’t yet written and sold a novel. These are authors who deserve to be read, who deserve to have their work gathered in one place so that potential readers can find them and be delighted. Our first single author collection was for Cat Rambo, and it’s absolutely beautiful. The next one, which I’m finishing up even now, is by Eric James Stone, and contains a novelette that’s also just been nominated for a Nebula Award. It’s incredibly satisfying to work with such talented authors who are going to transform this field as they progress through their careers.

VENTRELLA: Has Paper Golem been the success you hoped?

SCHOEN: Absolutely, particularly because (and this may be the same mindset that originally set me on the road of being an academician) I don’t measure success in terms of how much money is produced. Paper Golem is bringing quality fiction to print, and if you love reading good science fiction and fantasy then there really isn’t a higher mark to hit.

VENTRELLA: What does a small press offer than the larger publishing houses cannot?

SCHOEN: The ability to take chances. The opportunity to work with authors as a labor of love without having to justify it to the accountant. There are tradeoffs, of course. Would I love to publish a best seller? Sure. More sales would mean more money to do more books, but it would also mean reaching more people and introducing them to authors they might not have otherwise found. Don’t get me wrong, I love big presses, and I love what they do. But small presses serve a different niche. Small presses are all about the long tail, the specialized market. For Paper Golem that’s novella-length fiction and newer authors, and seriously, that’s not all that specialized. Somewhere I’m sure there’s a small press that is specialized to serve the reading desires of people who want nothing but humorous SF stories about talking, vampire cats solving computer crime in space. Hmm… I wonder if anyone has a novella about that…

VENTRELLA: What bugs you most about the publishing industry and what would you change about it if you could?

SCHOEN: Lately I’ve become more and more upset about the economics and how that drives what publishing does. I’ve seen author friends who are working on series get dropped by their publishers because while the series is profitable, it’s not as profitable as hoped, so the author has to change publishers, and in effect end their series (the big exception to this being Carrie Vaugh) because what new publisher would want to pick up a series with book #5 when the rights to books #1 through #4 are tied up elsewhere? I understand that publishing is a business, and it would be criminally naive to imagine otherwise, but I don’t read because doing so puts money in some editor’s pocket or employs a proof reader or marketing department; I read because I enjoy what a given author creates.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

SCHOEN: I read anything by Walter Jon Williams, Karl Schroeder, Daniel Abraham, China Mieville. I go on binges where I’ll read everything I can get by a particular author that I’ve stumbled over or rediscovered in my library, and I’ll keep tearing through all of that author’s work for a while until I’m sated and have to come up for air. Last year I devoured books by the late Kage Baker. Right now I’m in the middle of Michael Chabon.

VENTRELLA: How has your background as a psychologist influenced your work?

SCHOEN: I trained as a researcher, and so everything comes back to a question. Everything gets turned into a testable hypothesis. Why does the character do X. What happens if the bad guy is thwarted by removing Y from his path. What are the systematic variables that can affect the outcome? This kind of worldview permeates not just my fiction, but also my daily wife. It drives my wife nuts!

VENTRELLA: How did you come up with the concept of The Amazing Conroy?

SCHOEN: Some years back I was enrolled in the two week workshop that James Gunn offers out of the University of Kansas. It was the last night; we were done. Everyone had gathered and in a celebratory mood, and this line of dialogue just popped into my head and right out of my mouth without any control. It was “Put down the buffalo dog and step away from the bar!”

As soon as I said the room went quiet and everyone was staring at me. I had no idea what it meant or where it had come from, but I vowed to one day write a story with that line. It took years, but then, one day, I found myself writing “Buffalo Dogs.” At the time, I had no idea it was going to lead to another quarter million words and a branded identity.

VENTRELLA: There seems to be a theme in much of speculative fiction about super-humans – the “chosen one” who has special powers no one else has who is the subject of a prophecy to save the world blah blah blah. Of course, that’s an old theme going back forever. The main characters in my books are just normal guys who do their best, make mistakes, yet win in the end, and you have the same attitude in your work. So why do these kinds of characters appeal to you?

SCHOEN: I blame Thornton Wilder. I had to read a lot of his stuff back in high school, and he spent a fair amount of time championing the “every man.” Ordinary people finding themselves in extraordinary circumstances are much easier for a reader to relate to than someone who is superhuman in extraordinary circumstances. Most of us are never going to be James Bond, but we very well could be the guy who lives in the apartment next door to him (of course it’s not his real apartment, just one he keeps as a cover). I like protagonists who aren’t jaded by the chaos and adventure of their lives, but rather are dragged into it by surprise, kicking all the way.

VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?

SCHOEN: The answer to that is constantly changing, because I’m constantly changing as a writer. I’m very happy with the new novel, and I think it represents a new high point in my ability to craft a complex story and tell an entertaining tale. There’s a short story I wrote a while back that came out in January of last year and that I secretly (well, not so secretly now) harbor an unlikely hope that it will make the Hugo ballot. It’s called “The Wrestler and the Spearfisher” and it’s one of my infrequent jaunts into Fantasy.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? Do you outline heavily, for instance?

SCHOEN: I’m constantly changing how I work, trying new things. Nowadays, I’m trying to get better at blocking out the scenes in a story or novel before I do too much of the writing. I’m somewhat transitioning from being a seat-of-the-pants writer (what some like to call a “discovery writer”) to an outliner, but I suspect I’m going to stop far short of the end. I’m enjoying knowing more about a work before I sit down to write it though. It’s very different from the way I used to work. But will it last? We’ll just have to see.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting author that you wish someone had given you? What is the biggest mistake you see aspiring authors make?

SCHOEN: Problems in Perspective. There are always going to be bigger fish, and if you constantly compare your attainments to them, you’re always going to make yourself miserable. Keep a perspective on things and don’t view this business as a zero-sum game. Instead, if you have to be competitive, compete with yourself. Are you further along now than you were at this time last year? Is your prose improving? Are your plots more involved? Work on improving yourself, rather than trying to be as good as someone else. You’ll get there sooner, and you’ll be happier along the way.

16

Interview with author Steve Miller

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am honored to be interviewing Steve Miller today. Steve and I have been on panels together at conventions, and I interviewed his collaborator (and wife) Sharon Lee recently. They started the first Liaden novel in 1984 and have published sixteen novels and several dozen short works together in that series alone, garnering a number of awards as well as invitations as Guests of Honor and Special Guests coast to coast in the US and Canada at many conventions. Their work has enjoyed a number of award nominations, with SCOUT’S PROGRESS being selected for the Prism Award for Best Futuristic Romance of 2001 and LOCAL CUSTOM finishing second for the same award. BALANCE OF TRADE, appeared in hardcover in February 2004 and hit Amazon.com genre bestseller lists before going on to win the Hal Clement Award as Best YA Science fiction for the year. SALTATION is a current nominee for Best SF of the Year on the Goodreads Choice Awards.

Steve, how do you and Sharon work together? What’s the process like?

STEVE MILLER: A madhouse, according to some solo authors.

We often role-play at dinner or after going over the day’s work; sometimes we’ll start driving, get in a discussion of a character or plot point and end up in Canada. The role-playing may involve standing and showing body language, or the raising of voice in character, or the rapid alternation of characters, more or less in voice — I guess, yes, our own madhouse. Sometimes one or another of us will pause at the grocery store, say “storystuff!” and we’ll discuss things right in front of the oatmeal or carrots — story takes precedence.

More prosaically, one of us generally does the typing/sketching of the first draft — Sharon will sometimes retire to the couch and write longhand notes, and I usually work on the netbook or big computer directly, my hand written notes being unreadable the next day. We sometimes switch off in the middle if timing is an issue — neither of us is automatically doing the first run. Generally, the person doing the base work is the “traffic cop” on the book, and is responsible for backing up the book, having the two foot pile of paper in their office, and etc. Since we usually agree on points as the book is written there’s not that much disagreement on things — but the traffic cop gets third vote on a book if there is an impasse about something, thus making calling in the Marines to solve something for us much less likely.

VENTRELLA: What themes do you find yourself revisiting in your work?

MILLER: Oddly enough, or perhaps predictably enough, partnership is one, as is the unreliability of formal education and educational institutions. I note that Sharon and I have both worked in university settings ….

We also tend to stress the need for individuals to have a trusted pool of competent (if not savory) people who they can depend on for advice, at least. I think I also deal with change-as-necessity. We also subscribe to the Andre Norton “there have been prior civilizations” school of thought and all that may be carried forth from there.

VENTRELLA: What makes your work different from others in the genre, in your opinion?

MILLER: I think that I’m a bridge between many of the older ideas and approaches of science fiction and the new, from the old market to the now market. I’ve had breakfast, lunch, dinner, and sometimes a morning or late night glass with writers and editors ranging from John Brunner, Damon Knight, Ted White, and Hal Clement to Roger Zelazny, Jack Chalker, Vonda McIntyre, and Toni Weiskopf; I’ve been to Clarion and I was published in Amazing before the lamented-by-me attempt to turn it into a mediamag. Having talked shop and traded manuscripts with this kind of an array brought me to face to face with idea writers and storytellers. Also, I’ve extrensivly read — not studied, but read and absorbed as a young reader and then a young writer — many of the founders of SF and Fantasy as we know it, both in short fiction and longer fiction. And not just the celebrated classic authors, but the pot-boiling writers to whom story and flow was ghod. Not too long ago I was surprised to see someone recognizably a “name” writer of the 1990s and 2000s assuming to have invented a certain genre … which actually was invented in the 1930s by a famous writer apparently unknown to the “modern” writer. What this means is that I have, and draw on, a breadth of “SF genre” that many newer writers lack — and that some disdain, to their detriment. In other words my meme farm is huge, and I’m not afraid to use it!

VENTRELLA: Everyone who is published was an “aspiring writer” once. What mistakes did you make along the way?

MILLER: How much time do you have? No, seriously, I made a lot in a very short time — especially between the ages of 20 and 24, when I’d been assured by some very good writers that I could probably make it it as a pro someday, based on what they’d seen of my work. They were the fiction writers, of course, because by that age I was already writing for newspapers, magazines, semi-pro zines, anywhere I could — particularly if there was pay involved.

What I didn’t comprehend was that a suggestion by a well-known fiction pro that maybe I should “clean this up and send it on to XXXX magazine” didn’t mean “Tell him I sent you” … and also that once I did get a nibble that I shouldn’t expect instant results, that is, that as a no-name-newbie my work was something that might fill out an issue when it would fit — of course there were more print magazine then and many of the editors had come along as I was coming along, and thought that was how it would work forever — get a foot in, become first a byline, then a signature, then a name, then an invite to write a novel.

Clearly, the biggest mistake I made was lack of patience and in the long run trying to rush things probably cost me a year or two of pro work.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest misconception people have about being a writer?

MILLER: There are several that go together, I think — One is that being a writer is inherently glamorous and the add-on is that being a writer elevates one to a superior state of being, with all the joys thereof.

VENTRELLA: How did you first interest an agent in your work?

MILLER: Accidentally. I was working as “third key” at Williams-Sonoma in Owings Mills, Maryland — meaning I was official management and got to deal with provblems and situations the manager didn’t want to deal with, like book signings and in store demos. Thus, when we had a double whammy of that, it was me in the front line — we had a cookbook author come to the store for a demo! The day before she came we’d gotten an offer on Agent of Change from Own Locke at Del Rey. It turned out that the cookbook author also wrote fiction… and when I mentioned that we had an offer in hand she recommended us to her agent, who looked over (and improved) the contract and got us through the three Del Rey books. Once we had a record getting the next agent was a little easier, but she was uncomfortable dealing with the SF side of things, and eventually we moved on after personal meetings with several agents at conventions and we’re pleased to link up with Jennifer Jackson.

VENTRELLA: What process do you use when creating believable characters?

MILLER: I’m hoping to write a book about this, but not here. Generally there’s no concious prefabrication involved in my new characters — the story starts, the character stands out from stage left or right, and Ta Da! I rarely base a character on someone I’ve met, but it may be on someone I know — that is, based on a character I’ve met in the thousands of books and stories I’ve read. The key to believabilty is not in the original creation, but on how the character acts in the story. A multi-hundred foot tree as a character? No problem. A sentient dragon looking for love? No problem… as long as they act right by who they are and don’t just act like dolls moved form here to there in a dollhouse.

VENTRELLA: What is your background in writing? What led you to wanting to be a writer?

MILLER: I pretty much have wanted to be a writer since I started reading books, and it probably helped that my grandmother was an award-winning poet so the concept of writing for publication had a priority over writing for school from the time I was quite young.

In high school I worked on the school literary magazine several years before becoming editor as a senior and in college I joined the school newspaper in my freshman year as a reporter, and soon took over some editorial duties. I started reviewing for the school paper as well as a number of fanzine and semi-pro genre mags shortly thereafter, and eventually was Managing Editor. I also contributed to poetry publications — which led to my weekly poetry column in a local newspaper by the time I was 23, IIRC. I was the sceince fiction book reviewer for the Baltimore Sun in my mid-20s when I was also a music columnist for the Baltimore area Star newspapers — and that led to me eventually being a features editor and then to taking over as Editor of several weekly papers. The whole time, from about 17, I was also writing fiction, which began appearing in semi-pro magazines and then in Amazing and some other pro places. I did spend some summers working construction, which helped convince me that writing was the way to go when it came to making a living.

VENTRELLA: The publishing industry is changing daily. What trends do you predict and how will this affect the business and your own publishing?

MILLER: Shoot for the moon: I think IPads in he current size will become obsolete in a couple years and theat reading will increase as people have access to phone readers and more reasonably sized and priced tablets. Paper publishing will continue to be a zoo, the current returns system in the US will crumble with in next 5 years as physically moving books becomes too expensive — this will cut down print runs drastically which will cut a lot of small bookstores out of the loop. We’ll keep on writing.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now that we can look forward to?

MILLER: I’m told that between a new yet-to-be-seen novel and new Baen editions of previous novels we have at least six books due out in 2011, so it shouldn’t be hard for a a new reader to find us. Those are all books that are written, however.

In the short term, the new stuff? I’m working on finalizing SKYBLAZE, a novella due out as a chapbook from my own SRM Publisher in February. For those familiar with the Liaden Universe(R) this will span the end of the attack from I DARE and the early SUREBLEAK period and is our holiday chapbook (delayed a bit because of my recent hospitalization and the moving of SRM’s principal office).

Beyond that, we have contracts for three more Liaden novels to be delivered over the next 18 months or so. The first is DRAGON SHIP, which is the follow-on to GHOST SHIP; I have notes on that and once SKYBLAZE is done I’ll do a week of rereading of the series and then start right in — it follows Theo from FLEDGLING, SALTATION, and GHOST SHIP as she deals with the results of her pursuit of a, let us say, nonconforming path to independent starship pilot. Also in the works is an unnamed novel set on a post-Korval-arrival Surebleak and the long-awaited JETHRI follow-on, TRADE SECRET, which, depending on where you started reading the series, is a distant prequel to the Agent sequence or a distant follow-on to the Crystal books.

We’ve also committed to several more short stories for 2011 but I can’t say more than that quite yet.

1

Interview with author William Freeman

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I welcome author William Freedman. His debut novel, LAND THAT I LOVE, was published this year by Rebel and he is currently finishing his second, MIGHTY MIGHTY. His novelette “Forever and Ever, Amen” appeared in the 2006 Spirit House chapbook and his short story “Intentions” is scheduled to be published this year in Ash-Tree Press’s HOLY HORRORS anthology. He is a founding member of the Long Island-based LISciFi critique group and has been a panelist at I-Con, Balticon, Albacon, Capclave and Arisia. He holds degrees in journalism and international business and his non-fiction work has appeared in Investor’s Business Daily, Euromoney Books, Global Finance magazine, Treasury & Risk Management magazine, and many other business and financial news outlets both in print and online.

William, what is it in your background that made you want to write LAND THAT I LOVE? Was there some specific political event that triggered the idea?

WILLIAM FREEDMAN: When I began writing LAND THAT I LOVE, George W. Bush had just won the 2004 presidential race. (I hesitate to use the term “re-elected” because that presumes he was elected the first time.) Considering all the changes in American politics in the brief time since then, some might not recall the mood of the nation back then. The Republican Party controlled both chambers of Congress as well as the White House, and the Supreme Court was getting more conservative all the time. We were effectively a one-party nation. From Election Day until Katrina, dissent was rarely heard in public. I remember telling a co-worker at the time, “I’m married and raising three kids in a Republican-majority suburb, so I’m a lifestyle conservative. I’m an MBA, so I’m by definition a fiscal conservative. As someone who was in harm’s way during the Gulf War, I’m in favor of military intervention in Iraq, even if I don’t buy the reasons the White House is giving for that intervention. With a few codicils, I’m pro-life. But I don’t believe in rescinding habeus corpus. I don’t believe in warrantless wiretaps. I don’t believe in torture for torture’s sake. But what exactly am I allowed to disagree with the President about and still be considered a good American?” He didn’t have an answer to that.

By the way, it didn’t take me five years to finish writing a 55,000-word book. It took me one. But it then took three years to find a publisher and the better part of another to get through the contractual, editing and launch processes. On my blog site, LandThatILoveNovel.WordPress.com, I have a page with excerpts from some of the rejections I got from publishers and agents. At first, nobody wanted to touch the political controversy. Then, after it became fashionable again to criticize Bush, the rejections tended to say that the material was too dated — that by the time they’d be able to get it on the shelves, the war would be over. Of course, the book has been out for the better part of a year now, and we still have a hundred thousand American troops spread between Iraq and Afghanistan. I suppose I get the last laugh, but I’d give it up if it meant bringing them all home.

Incidentally, I don’t consider this book anti-war. It’s anti-arrogance. I don’t consider it anti-conservative, as its Amazon reviews would indicate. It’s anti-seeing-the-whole-world-through-only-one-lens.

VENTRELLA: Who were you inspired or influenced by? (Am I remiss in seeing the ILLUMINATI trilogy in here somewhere? fnord)

FREEMAN: I never read it. Maybe I should. I’m not really into the whole conspiracy-theory thing. Although there is an element of deception, there are no conspiracies in LAND THAT I LOVE. Everyone’s motivations are pretty clear and nobody’s manipulating anyone. It’s the naked power of a remote overlord versus the scrappy resistance of the proud locals. This plot goes back at least to the Maccabees and almost certainly before that.

I do steal the plot straight out of H.G. Wells’s THE WAR OF THE WORLDS with one exception: There are no aliens. In the corner of the Milky Way in which LAND THAT I LOVE takes place, there are no extant, high-functioning non-human civilizations. Humanity has spread throughout the sourthern spiral but hasn’t encountered much in the way of competition. And I think that will continue to be the case. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever encounter anything out there more dangerous than ourselves.

VENTRELLA: Given the good reviews you have received, how are you capitalizing on that?

FREEMAN: I get a little more respect from my local librarians. And now that I have a book in print and those kind words on Amazon and on the back cover, I feel like I have quite a decent calling card when it comes time to get serious about floating MIGHTY MIGHT, my superhero spoof/social satire, to the agenting and publishing worlds.

VENTRELLA: I met you at Albacon, a science fiction convention. Why did you decide to target that audience?

FREEMAN: Satire is my canvas, but science fiction and fantasy are my palette. These are the tropes I use. But I belong to a sci-fi/fantasy crit group, not a comedy crit group. Just as I want my writing to work on the gag level and on the message level, it absolutely has to function on the adventure level. Don Adams won the Best Actor Emmy three years in a row because Maxwell Smart, as Adams inhabited him, might spend most the show making faces, delivering a litany of trademark gag lines and stepping on rakes, but in the last five minutes he’d be swinging from chandeliers, winning sword fights, expertly manipulating some world-saving gizmo and outwitting the villains as surely as James Bond or Napoleon Solo or Matt Helm would have. And you wanted him to get together with 99, and you wanted him to impress the Chief. Get Smart worked as a parody precisely because it also worked as character-driven romantic comedy and as the kind of secret agent story that it was sending up. Of course, sci-fi and fantasy auteurs in 2010 take their genre far more seriously than the spy writers of the 1960s did. I’d probably have ruffled fewer feathers in that milieu.

Even so, I remain resolute in identifying with sci-fi (which I insist on calling “sci-fi” despite protests from people who are trying to jettison the term in some have-baked, poorly conceived and wrong-headed attempt at gaining respectability) and fantasy. My favorite author these days is Paolo Bacigalupi, whom I’ve been following like a deranged fanboy since “Pop Squad” first appeared in 2006. Over the past couple years, he’s won all kinds of awards and critical acclaim. No less august an outlet as Time magazine showed him love for THE WINDUP GIRL. In a convention green room a few months ago, he was chatting with some other writers and talking about how mainstream publishing pros are telling him to keep doing what he does, but stop calling what he writes “science fiction”. He just laughs it off. I like to think I would too. Not that I’m in any position or am ever likely to be.

VENTRELLA: Have you received any negative comments based on the political nature of the book? Or do we just assume that the targets of your book don’t read anyway?

FREEMAN: I think history has come down on my side on this one. As unpopular as President Obama is today, he’s still twice as popular as President Bush was in his final year. Even the new wave of Republicans have little good to say about Bush’s policies.

A quick word about my own politics. Like I said, I’m an independent. I tend to vote for Democrats at the national level, but I’m just as likely to vote for Republicans in local and state contests. I got my liberal arts degree from a conservative school and my business degree from a liberal school. I’m used to disgreeing, pointedly but respectfully, with my friends, then going out drinking with them afterwards. If you think I’m an extremist, it might be because you’re the extremist and believe that everyone who doesn’t agree with you on every issue is stupid, misinformed or evil. That goes for liberals, who might identify more with my broader beliefs, as well as conservatives. My non-absolutist views on the abortion debate don’t set too well with the left.

Abortion doesn’t figure in LAND THAT I LOVE’s plot. I just cite this to call out some increasingly shrill voices who expect their favorite writers to tow a party line. I refer to the former fans of Elizabeth Moon, who vilified her for expressing what I agree is a reprehensible position on how the American mainstream ought to treat the Muslim-American community. I don’t defend her stance, just her right to disagree with the rest of us. Am I supposed to burn my signed copy of ENDER’S GAME just because I’m uncomfortable with Orson Scott Card’s anti-gay rhetoric? Is it inappropriate for me to read Nietszche or listen to Wagner because I’m a Jew and they were anti-Semites? Guess I should’ve never bought that Ford then. I mean, how would those of us who are left-of-center react if Glenn Beck went on the air and told all his viewers to boycott Alec Baldwin movies? If we’re artists, aren’t we expected to draw a reaction — a strong reaction? Can we do that if we’re concerned that we’ll lose our audience if we say something they might disagree with? We won’t ever have to worry about government or corporate sponsorship if we allow others to cow us into censoring ourselves. Yeah, good luck saying something brilliant if you’re always on the defensive against saying something stupid. And good luck getting through the rest of your life without saying something stupid.

VENTRELLA: Do you think today’s political landscape is in need of more satire, or is the news itself satire enough? (Since my next book is about a liberal vampire who runs for President, I certainly hope there is a market out there still for political satire!)

FREEMAN: No, Mike. Sorry. I tapped that well dry. There’s nothing left. I feel bad for you after all that work. Tell you what: I’ll buy a copy.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on next?

MIGHTY MIGHTY takes place in a world very similar to ours but with one exception: it has roughly the same proportion of superpowered individuals as the Marvel or DC universes seem to have. As one character puts it, “There are as many people with powers as there are people with herpes.”

The reason that world is otherwise indistinguishable from ours is that we ourselves have abilities and talents we don’t use. We all have excuses: lack of ambition, lack of social graces, family responsibilities, better things to do. But we could all be making more of a difference in the world. That’s why so many of MIGHTY MIGHTY’s most powerful characters work as airport screeners or mall cops. Until Fate, i.e., me, steps in to provide them with one last chance at redemption.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

FREEMAN: Bruce Stirling, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Iain M. Banks. I mentioned Paolo already.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting author that you wish someone had given you? What is the biggest mistake you see aspiring authors make?

FREEMAN: You can’t copy-edit enough. Ultimately, you have final signoff. Your name goes on the cover and any mistakes that can creep in during the editing process, you own forever. Don’t assume that leaving the editing to skilled professionals is like leaving it to infallible gods. Don’t make that final cut on a screen. Print out all hundreds of pages and read them fresh. In LAND THAT I LOVE, I had what my editor considered an unclear antecedent to the pronoun “his”. There were two possible individuals that could have been referenced, although I can only see the logic in one. She picked the other and replaced “his” with the wrong character’s name. The mistake takes me out of the story every time I read it for an audience — and it’s right there in the first chapter. Maybe I’m being overly sensitive, though, because nobody else has told me they caught the error yet.

Interview with Walter H. Hunt

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Walter H. Hunt is a science fiction writer known primarily for his “Dark Wing” series, a “military space opera.” His most recent work, A SONG IN STONE, deals with the Knights Templar. He lives near my old stomping grounds (Boston area) with his wife and daughter. His web page is here.

Walter, you began writing scenarios for games. (As a person who has done the same — albeit for LARPs — I know what that’s like!) How did you get published that way? In other words, how did you turn your hobby into a business?

WALTER H. HUNT: I had the good fortune to encounter Rich Meyer and Kerry Lloyd of Gamelords in 1981 and was pulled into the company as a writer. Between 1981 and 1984 I worked on a number of projects for them. When they stopped publishing Richard and I (along with others, including my wife) began Adventure Architects to write free-lance in the game industry. We worked for Mayfair, Iron Crown, FASA, and several other companies.

VENTRELLA: Is there still much of a market out there for writing for games?

HUNT: It seems so, though I haven’t done any of it for quite some time.

VENTRELLA: When did you decide to start writing fiction, and what were your first attempts like?

HUNT: When I was in elementary school. And it was predictably awful, though it meant that I wrote lots and lots of words and learned how to set scenes and compose dialog. I wrote six novels in middle and high school. They will never be seen, I hope.

VENTRELLA: How did you get your first big break?

HUNT: I’d shown a manuscript to a friendly editor at a convention in 1987, and when he began working for Tor Books in 2000 he contacted me through a mutual friend to see if I still had it available. The mutual friend lined up the agent, so I got the agent and the publisher at the same time. Lucky break – though it took almost 14 years for me to get so lucky.

VENTRELLA: Lately it seems that fantasy of all varieties has taken the place of science fiction on the bookshelves. To what do you attribute this change?

HUNT: Haven’t a clue. There is a lot of bad fantasy, but there is a lot of bad science fiction too – especially on television. Sturgeon’s Law, I suppose.

VENTRELLA: Your most recent work is about the Knights Templar and the Rosslyn Chapel, something most people had never heard of before Dan Brown. How did you decide to tackle that subject?

HUNT: The Order of the Temple is an interesting subject, with plenty of scope for writing. I’d heard of Rosslyn before reading the Brown book – it’s common pseudohistorical fodder in Masonic circles, and I’ve been a Freemason since 1988. When we went to Scotland for Worldcon in 2005 I put it on my itinerary, and was fortunate to receive a tour from a fellow Mason. He pointed to the ceiling of the lady-chapel and said, “that’s the Rosslyn music.” As the lead character in “Despicable Me” is fond of saying, “light bulb.” By the time I came back from Scotland the book was plotted and partially written.

VENTRELLA: You are a regular at science fiction conventions (and indeed, we have been on panels together!). Why do you attend them?

HUNT: Why, to meet fascinating colleagues. Seriously, the opportunity to meet readers and fellow writers is something not to be passed up. For professionals (or aspiring professionals), there are editors and publishers as well. I arranged my most recent book deal at NASFiC this summer by having the right conversation with the right person. And I’m still a fan: I’ve gotten to sit next to people like Robert Sheckley and Frederik Pohl and Connie Willis and David Brin and a dozen others – and talk to them (and listen to them. More listen than talk, I hope.)

VENTRELLA: What advice would you have for an aspiring genre writer for attending these things, even if they haven’t been published yet?

HUNT: Finish the book. No one buys an idea from an aspiring writer – only a manuscript. But by all means believe in your own work; I have seen too many occasions when an unpublished writer lets his/her work be folded, spindled and mutilated by people who want to make it into something else because it might be more “publishable.” Write what you understand, trust your creative instinct, and finish it.

VENTRELLA: What’s your pet peeve about the industry?

HUNT: I’ve heard it said that the criteria and market studies for genre fiction are thirty-plus years out of date. I think that some editors base decisions on what to buy and what to promote based on inaccurate perceptions of the composition and demographics of the buying public. But, again, I have no idea if this is true.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you see aspiring authors make?

HUNT: To assume that there’s any money in this business. I’m married; as the old joke goes, “what do you call a full-time writer who’s single?” The answer is, of course, “homeless.”

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

HUNT: Small press deserves better respect, and I think the internet is helping with that. My Rosslyn book A SONG IN STONE is currently published by a small press. Self-publishing is a mistake: it says, essentially, “no one professional will buy my work, but maybe the reader will. I hope so, my garage is full of these things I paid to print.” So I’d wait to have someone buy my work.

VENTRELLA: I see you are a historian or sorts, having studied that in college. With a time machine and a universal translator, who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?

HUNT: Top of the list would be Benjamin Franklin – polymath, wit, diplomat, Freemason. Erasmus of Rotterdam. Stanley Weinbaum and Cyril Kornbluth, two great science fiction writers. My parents, whom I miss terribly (they’ve been gone for twenty years and never saw me succeed as an author. My mom would enjoy meeting Franklin, I suspect.)

You know that Hendrik van Loon did this little thought experiment, right?

VENTRELLA: Um, no. Hendrik van Loon? Did you make that name up?

Interview with Hugo Winning Author Allen Steele

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing two-time Hugo award winning author Allen Steele today! Allen has won numerous awards and nominations for his science fiction stories, novels, and novellas. His novels include ORBITAL DECAY, LUNAR DESCENT, THE JERICHO ITERATION, OCEANSPACE, and the “Coyote” series. His web page is here.

Allen is the Guest of Honor at the 2010 Albacon SF convention (which is next weekend as of this posting). I’ll be there too (but only as a regular ordinary guest)!

Allen,You’re one of the few authors who has been published on another planet. How did that come about?

ALLEN STEELE: A couple of years ago, NASA’s Phoenix lander made it to Mars, and aboard it is a DVD containing a library of science fiction stories and artwork about Mars that was compiled by the Planetary Society. Among them is ‘Live From The Mars Hotel”, my first published story, which was published in Asimov’s Science Fiction in 1988. The DVD is intended to be a repository for future Mars colonists, and also a tribute to SF writers and artists who’ve portrayed Mars since the 1700′s. It’s a huge honor to have my work represented in this way. In fact, I wrote a story about this that appeared in Asimov’s earlier this year: “The Emperor of Mars”, in the June 2010 issue.

VENTRELLA: You’ve been with small publishers and large. Which do you honestly prefer?

STEELE: Both have their benefits. Large publishers like Ace or HarperCollins pay better and have greater distribution; small publishers like Subterranean and Old Earth give me the advantage of more creative control and also the ability to publish individual novellas and short fiction collections, something which large publishers tend to avoid these days. So I split the difference by having my novels put out by large publishers and my short fiction by small publishers. Any preferences I may have are predicated by what I’m publishing, really.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing? Should a starting author consider such a thing?

STEELE: Only if they don’t mind not making any money from your work or not having it seen by very many people. Yes, I know there are exceptions, and that online publishing is offering yet another option, but the success stories are few and far between. Nearly every time I go to a SF convention, I see people hawking self-published novels from tables they’ve rented in the dealer’s room, and at best they sell only a handful. Bookstores won’t carry them, and reviewers simply won’t touch `em. There’s literally thousands of self-published novels and stories online, and I’d be amazed if any of them were downloaded more than a few dozen times. And once a book or story has seen print in any form, professional editors are not inclined to reprint them (again, yes, I know there’s exceptions. I can only name one or two, though). So it’s a dead end, and one that a new author should avoid.

VENTRELLA: Hard science fiction seems to be taking a back seat to high fantasy, steampunk, urban fantasy, and other genres. Why do you think that is?

STEELE: This last decade, yes, SF has been less visible. Personally, I think the principal reason is that the other genres you mention are almost entirely escapist in nature, and tend to look backward instead of forward, while SF is usually a forward-looking genre, with the best work grappling with the effects of the present while confronting plausible futures. We’re living in scary and uncertain times, so it’s little wonder that many readers are searching for that sort of literature that avoids reality, whether it be ersatz-Tolkien fantasy worlds, sexy vampires, or pseudo-Victorian settings that bear little or no resemblance to history as it actually happened.

But when you look at the history of the SF genre as a whole, you see that SF is something that periodically waxes and wanes in popularity. When my first novel was published in 1989, it was during one of those waning periods. Shortly after that was the SF boom of 90′s when a lot of new writers like myself who write this sort of thing entered the genre, but this followed by the gradual decline of the last decade. Eventually SF will make another comeback. Until then, writers like myself will continue to satisfy that solid, hard-core SF audience that has never gone away, while several hundred fantasy, horror, and steampunk writers struggle to distinguish themselves from the pack.

VENTRELLA: I can think of many SF novels that aren’t that old that didn’t predict cell phones or email, for instance, which makes them a bit quaint. How does one avoid those things?

STEELE: The purpose of science fiction isn’t the prediction of the future. When that happens, it’s by accident (and incidentally, there is an older SF novel that depicts a cell phone: TUNNEL IN THE SKY by Robert A. Heinlein, published in 1955). So claiming that a given SF novel is “quaint” because it didn’t predict the future that it depicted means you’re holding it to a double-standard that’s impossible for a writer to keep. When a SF writer comes up with a futuristic scenario, he or she is simply devising a world that doesn’t presently exist and may never; because he or she is extrapolating from our current condition, they should try to create a certain verisimilitude by keeping a close eye on what may be possible. But his or her job isn’t to predict the future, but rather to tell a good, believable story.

VENTRELLA: In a similar vein, LABYRINTH OF NIGHT made use of the “Face on Mars” – is this something you regret or try to avoid now?

STEELE: When I wrote “Red Planet Blues”, the 1989 novella which I later expanded to become LABYRINTH OF NIGHT, the “Face on Mars” was an astronomical oddity that relatively few people knew about. Aside from that single grainy image photographed by the Viking orbiter in 1976, it was a curiosity and nothing more. Our lack of knowledge about it gave me the liberty to use the Face as a springboard for a first-contact story. By the time the novel was published in 1992, though, the Face had become the subject of tabloid journalism and pseudo-science books, and not long after that the Cydonia region of Mars was revisited by subsequent NASA probes, during which the Face disappeared. I don’t regret the novel I wrote — it’s a good adventure story that sold many copies in both the U.S. and in Europe — but it’s now obsolete and I don’t mind that it’s gone out of print.

VENTRELLA: What is it about alternate history novels that appeals to writers and readers?

STEELE: The appeal of alternative history is obvious: depicting what might have happened if certain events had happened in a different way. It’s like futuristic SF, only in reverse. And just as it’s unwise to read a futuristic SF novel as a means of predicting the future, I think that it’s similarly unwise to read an alt-history story as a means of understanding the past. It’s just another form of storytelling, really.

VENTRELLA: What did you do to prepare for your alternate history novels?

STEELE: When I’ve researched the alt-history stories I’ve written, I’ve started by reading every reliable account I can find that depict the particular historical events upon which I’ve basing that particular story or novel. If possible, I visit actual locations; museums are another major resource. I take loads of notes, and during this period I’m fine-tuning the story and characters as well. It’s hard work, but I think it pays off in the sort of verisimilitude that you need to achieve if the reader is going to buy into the variation on history that I’m depicting.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake made by authors who write SF?

STEELE: The common mistake by novice SF writers is two-fold: not doing enough research, and then letting the research they have done get in the way of their story. Science fiction is hard to write, mainly because of the homework involved — which is a principal reason, I think, why so many new writers have taken to fantasy or horror instead; they’re easier to do — and there’s a great temptation to take shortcuts, but it’s just those sorts of shortcuts that undermine the story you’re creating. The other side of the coin is to do boatloads of research, then front-load everything you’ve learned into the story you’re writing; this can bog things down and cause the reader to lose interest. So you have to walk a line here: do your homework, but don’t bore the class by telling them every little thing that you learned.

VENTRELLA: Is writing a skill that can be learned or are the best writers born, not made?

STEELE: I think fiction writing is something that can be learned, yes … but it takes a long time to develop the skills necessary to tell a good story, and it’s a task that shouldn’t be undertaken lightly. Not every kid who joins a Little League team is going to grow up to be a pitcher for the Red Sox; not every guy who plays guitar in a garage band is cut out to tour with the Rolling Stones. Somehow, though, there’s a belief that if you know how to spell correctly and can compose a coherent paragraph, you’ve got the chops to publish a novel. Writing is hard work; it’s not something you learn overnight. And, yeah, it helps if you have a certain innate talent for this sort of thing. I once tried to learn how to play guitar, but gave up after two months of weekly classes after my instructor and I came to the realization that I have no musical talent whatsoever. So if you don’t really think you’re a writer … well, you should be honest with yourself and admit that you probably aren’t.

VENTRELLA: What’s the most interesting light bulb moment you’ve had, where you suddenly have an idea that makes the entire story?

STEELE: I had one of those moments just a couple of weeks ago. You’ll forgive me, though, if I don’t describe it in detail; I haven’t written the story yet. It involves an interesting little item I found at my next-door neighbor’s tag sale. Within five minutes of picking it up, I had an entire short story in my head. It’ll be fun … once I get around to writing it.

VENTRELLA: Amazon is reporting that e-books are now outselling traditional publications. What effect will this have on the publishing industry? For beginning authors is this a good thing or a bad thing?

STEELE: No one is really sure how ebooks are going to shape the publishing industry. There’s a lot of projections that they may eventually replace hardcovers or mass-market paperbacks. On the other hand, most readers I know tell me that they still prefer print novels. But I think ebooks are not only here to stay, but also have the potential to completely reshape how — and even what — people read. The take-off point will occur when the price of a good, reliable ebook device drops to about $50. If and when that occurs, you’ll see them all over the place.

Beginning novelists will probably have an easier time adapting to whatever changes there may be, simply because they’ll be able to take advantage of them from the get-go. It’s guys like me, who’ve had long careers writing exclusively for the print medium, who are going to have a tougher time adapting to the new environment. But we’re trying, we’re trying…

VENTRELLA: You’ll be the guest of honor at Albacon this year. What is it about attending conventions appeals to you?

STEELE: I don’t attend as many SF conventions as I used to, mainly because I’d rather spend my time writing. But when I do go to conventions — like MadCon in Madison, Wisconsin, last week, or Albacon in Albany, New York, next week — I generally have a lot of fun in a lot of different ways. I like meeting readers I haven’t met before, or seeing again those whom I’ve already met, or catching up with old friends and colleagues. I’m also a book collector, so you’ll usually find me prowling the dealer’s room in search of items to fill out my collection. And it sometimes gives me a chance to see a town I haven’t visited before, as I did in Madison.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now? Come on, give us a peek!

STEELE: I won’t tell you what I’m currently writing except that to say that it’s a young-adult SF novel, my first of this kind. The next novel to be published is HEX, which is set in the Coyote universe and is my take on the Dyson sphere concept; it’ll be out next June from Ace. As for what I’m going to do after that … I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go along.

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