Interview with New York Times Bestselling Author John Ringo

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am honored to be interviewing New York Times bestselling author John Ringo, who will be the Guest of Honor at this year’s Ravencon convention. (I’ll be there, too!)

John has has over two million copies of his books in print, and his works have been translated into seven different languages. His books range from straightforward science fiction to a mix of military and political thrillers.

You’ve had an interesting background. What made you decide you wanted to be a writer?

JOHN RINGO: My family tells me I’ve always written but you wouldn’t know it by my memory. I was always the kid who never turned in his essays. But I guess I’ve puttered at writing most of my life. And it’s better than a 9-5 job.

VENTRELLA: You’re also quite unique in that you did not collect a pile of rejection letters before your first novel was published. What’s the secret? Who did you bribe?

RINGO: Sigh. I need to just make a copy of this reply somewhere so I can cut and paste. 🙂

I wrote A HYMN BEFORE BATTLE in two chunks in the mid to late ’90s. It was the second “novel” I’d written. (The quotes are because neither the original version of HYMN nor my first novel were current novel length. And the ‘first story’ is never going to see the light of day.) When I’d finished, at least as well as I knew how at the time, I consulted ‘The Writer’s Digest’ then submitted it to Baen following all the submission requirements exactly. I’d already determined that it was more or less center of the lane for what they published.

I knew it would take months to even get reviewed so in the meantime I started on the sequel (one of my big suggestions to aspiring authors) and poked around on the Baen website. There I found one of the first ‘webforums’ (Baen’s Bar). Being a shy and retiring type, I, of course, just lurked. Hah! By the end of the first month I was one of the top three posters. 🙂

Another top poster was Jim Baen. He’d been active on the internet practically since it was opened to private and business use and he actively involved himself in the discussions. Which meant we were trading frequent discussions (as well as japes, gibes and jousts.) One point to make is that I did not go on there saying ‘I’m an aspiring author! Read my manuscript!’ I just got involved in the discussions. But at one point there was a discussion going on on the Aquatic Ape Theory. Jim was a proponent. I said ‘I think you’re crazy but I have to be nice to you cause I’ve got a book on your slushpile.’ His response was ‘Marla! Find me this manuscript!’ I took that as a jest suggesting that he was going to shred it.

About a week later I got a rejection. Just a mailed form letter with the title (A HYMN BEFORE BATTLE) squeezed into the title blank in a woman’s hand.

By that time I knew enough about Jim that if he had rejected it he’d have sent a personal message. So I sort of put it aside (I think I threw it away, I wish now I’d kept it!) and continued work on the sequel. I knew by then that Lois Bujold had been rejected three times before she published so I wasn’t worried. I had a day job and I’d just keep plugging along until I got published.

A week after I got the rejection (two weeks after Jim’s comment) I got the first email I’d ever gotten from Jim. ‘Nobody can find your manuscript. Send me an rtf.’

I then wrote a really abject letter explaining that it had been rejected but that was planning on reworking it as well as I could and I understood if he didn’t want to override his first reader…

I didn’t know Jim very well at that point. When he read the manuscript he fired the person who rejected it. 🙂

Anyway, I sent him HYMN as well as as much as I’d finished of GUST FRONT. One point that had come up during the discussions was that publishers look for ‘more than a one trick pony.’ They want someone who is going to be able to keep putting out stories. So I wanted to show I had more than one book in me.

He read it then sent me a series of emails telling me what was wrong with it. And the last was ‘if you fix it the way I told you, I’ll buy it.’ (Yes, every aspiring author’s dream.) So I did and he did.

The denouement to the story occurred a few month’s later. Jim accepted HYMN in April of 1998. In August I was puttering around on the computer and got an email from Jim. (Ding! You’ve Got Mail! Remember those days?) 🙂 The email read ‘Your mss Gust Front stops in media res. You have ten minutes.’ 🙂

I’d mentioned that I’d sent ‘as much as I’d finished’ of the sequel to Hymn when I sent Jim the Hymn mss. Well, it was exactly as much as I’d finished. I was working on it at the time so it ended in the middle of a battle in the middle of a sentence in the middle of a prepositional phrase. The last word of the mss was ‘of.’. 🙂

Fortunately, I’d finished it by that time and I sent him the whole thing. And he bought that. It was also when he hooked me up with David Weber.

VENTRELLA: Do you think that someone can learn to be a good writer? In other words, can a distinction be made between the technical skill and the creative skill?

RINGO: I think that any competent person can learn to be a competent writer and sometimes that’s all it takes. To be a really good author, though, I think requires talent. That may seem pompous but… I love music. I listen to music all the time. I have a head for lyrics. I absolutely suck at music. I have zero talent. I can’t figure out how to play the most basic notes, I’m flat as a singer. I just really suck. So I leave the music to people with the talent and admire that talent but I don’t go inflicting it on people.

But talent alone is not enough. ‘How do I get to Carnegie Hall?’ ‘Practice.’ As I mentioned above, I wrote a ‘full’ really really crappy novel before HYMN. And, yes, lots of other stuff before that. (Even if I was lousy about turning in homework.) Figure that you’re going to write a million words before you’re good enough to be published. But don’t get freaked by that. Those ‘million words’ are all the letters you write, emails, blog discussions, essays, etc. If you write them well, you’re advancing in the craft. Go for leet and you’re setting yourself up for failure. (At least until novels are primarily published in leet. 🙂

VENTRELLA: What themes do you find yourself revisiting in your work that may pop up without planning?

RINGO: The competent individual trying to achieve goals using a system in which he has to use people who are below his level of competence to achieve those goals.

Real life in other words. 🙂

VENTRELLA: What is it about science fiction that attracts you?

RINGO: The pallette. In SF you can pretty much create the starting environment and then work within that new millieu.

VENTRELLA: What science fiction stories (literature or movies) have inspired you?

RINGO: Heh. Either due to innate anti-socialness or the fact that I was always the ‘New Kid’, I grew up without alot of friends. Middle school and early HS was particularly bad. So I read instead of, you know, having a social life. So the list is…long.

Heinlein in general. (At least his earlier stuff.) The juveniles, STARSHIP TROOPER, obviously, the first part of TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE is probably my favorite book of all time. (The latter part being nearly my least favorite Heinlein.) Clarke’s DEEP RANGE was awesome. The list is endless.

VENTRELLA: Lately, fantasy has been outselling science fiction. Why do you think that is?

RINGO: Education. The educational system in the ‘West’ in general has been dumbed down so much that people’s brains aren’t well exercised. SF is designed to make people think. If you’re not used to that it, literally, hurts. A new thought causes increased blood flow to new areas of the brain. This is a good thing but it causes a slight headache. Since people’s brains aren’t broadly stressed by their education and day to day interactions reading SF gives them a headache.

In addition, alot of the traditional ‘core’ SF readers are now doing gaming instead of reading.

Combine the two and you have the relative success of fantasy.

However, thank God for it. For a while there nobody was reading. The population which graduated in the mid 80s into the late 90s contained a miniscule fraction of readers compared to newer graduates. Harry Potter has made reading ‘okay’ again. That’s a good thing.

VENTRELLA: Often, new writers are told to “write what you know.” This would seem to preclude anyone from ever writing science fiction or fantasy. Is this good advice at all?

RINGO: At one point it was suggested that I take over a writer’s workshop at a major convention. (Which idea I rejected.) But the joke was that the first thing I’d do is tell people to get some experiences. ‘The first writing exercise is to RUN to the top of this 22 story hotel! THEN BACK DOWN! When you get back I want a five hundred word essay on HOW YOUR FEET FEEL! MOVE IT MAGGOTS! MOVE IT! 🙂

What ‘write what you know’ means in SF is have a base of experience upon which to draw so as to more effectively tell the story and create the environment. I recently had to write a scene where a space welder is in an out-of-air situation. Have I ever been in an out-of-air situation in space? Nope. But I’ve been in one diving at least six times. (The last one during a cave dive which is why I now have claustrophobia.) So my big suggestion is always ‘Experience life. Then write. That way you’ve got something you ‘know.’

VENTRELLA: What is your writing style? (Do you outline heavily or just jump right in? Do you tend to start with an idea, a character concept, or something else?)

RINGO: Generally I jump right in. But … The ideation for the story is usually solid from months and even years of thinking about and building scenes and concepts. And I generally start with a general idea and a scene. Then, in general, I have scenes that I write to, what I call ‘stringing the pearls.’ Those scenes (‘visions of fire’) are what drive me to keep writing and are, generally, the really good part of my books.

Sometimes stuff comes out of nowhere and requires itself to be written. INTO THE LOOKING GLASS, GUST FRONT, GHOST and THE LAST CENTURION are in that category. Those write themselves and write themselves fast. LOOKING GLASS was a couple of weeks, GUST FRONT (one of my longest books) was a couple of months while I was working, GHOST was a month, LAST CENTURION was seven net days. (153k words)

I love those.

VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?

RINGO: UNTO THE BREACH. I don’t recommend the series. Despite it’s popularity (and it’s immensely popular) it’s not everyone’s cuppa.

But UNTO THE BREACH is outstanding. It’s one of the few books of mine I recommend. The last book that was that good was GUST FRONT but GF is weak in prose and grammar. (Early author mistakes.)

VENTRELLA: You’ve done quite a few collaborations. What do you see as the advantage of doing so?

RINGO: For the junior author the advantages are several. They build market by introducing the new author to the established author’s fanbase. They help teach the craft of writing as well as working in the publishing industry. And you can generally get more money from doing a collab as a new author than your own work.

For the senior author they’ve got two or three values. They permit the author to get a story out there that they either don’t have time to write or don’t have quite the right skill set to write. (See ‘write what you know.’) And the senior author gets fairly good money for slightly less work than a full novel.

VENTRELLA: They have obviously worked out, as you continue to do them. Is it a truly collaborative effort, or does one author primarily do the writing and the other act as guide and editor? How do you divide up the responsibilities?

RINGO: Every collaboration is different. I’ve done collaborations where I wrote a 35k outline for the junior author, (THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS, HERO) one where it was the junior author’s idea and I took portions of it as well as teaching the craft of writing, (VON NEUMANN’S WAR) wrote most of it and left portions for the junior author to ‘fill in’ (Vorpal Blade series) to ones where I basically gave the junior author a vague concept and they ran with it. (TULORIAD.)

Every collaboration is different.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever run across unexpected controversy with your writing? If so, how have you dealt with it?

RINGO: Unexpected? No. I’m considered a ‘controversial conservative SF author.’ Not to mention GHOST, which… well, you just don’t get more controversial unless you’re a gangsta rappah under indictment for murder. How do I deal with it? Generally I try to swallow my rage and smile. Because with the exception of some of the stuff in the Ghost series, I really don’t see what I say, what my characters do and say, as particularly controversial, crazy, evil or illogical. I see the people who consider it ‘controversial’ as idiots and morons. (Whereas they view me as a ‘racist, homophobic, xenophobic, genocidal asshole’ in the words of Mercedes Lackey.)

So, mostly, I ignore it.

VENTRELLA: You’ve never shied away from political issues as well (nor have I) – we have had a few interesting discussions in this area. Do you think it is wise for authors to take stands which may alienate readers?

RINGO: As I said in a recent email to a family member, politics has become religion and there is virtually nothing which is not politicized. You can take the PC approach of having the enemy be alter versions of what the Left hates (the US military as in Avatar, Christians, middle-class white males) in which case you can alienate the core readers of SF. Or you can alienate the Left by being a human and American exceptionalist and having characters who, whatever their race, nationality, creed or sex, act in a traditional self-determinant manner and worry about PC after the Human Race has been saved.

Whatever people think, you don’t get the choice to not piss anyone off. ‘You can please some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.’

VENTRELLA: Do you think this has affected your sales in any way? Do you care?

RINGO: If anything in the positive. My ‘controversial stands’ fit the market of my core writing. And, no, I don’t even if it’s in the net negative.

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

RINGO: Get an accountant.

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

RINGO: I tend to get sarcastic about this question. Impatience is one. There are alot of people out there that want to get published. Publishers who are even willing to look at unsolicited manuscripts are overwhelmed. So don’t think it’s going to be a fast process. Fill the time by writing your next book. Publishers also want people who have more than one book in you and if you’re a writer you’re going to want to write that one, too. Just write it. It may take years to get published. Unless you’re in your ’60s, you should have them. Be patient and keep writing in the meantime.

‘Puff reads.’ I made this mistake. After HYMN got accepted I asked Jerry Pournelle if he’d read it. He sent me a reply which at the time I took to be very rude to the effect that I’d asked him to do the most odorous chore of a professional writer so, no. Since then I’ve gotten to know more about Jerry and being asked to ‘read my manuscript’ and for Jerry he was being really damned polite.

There are authors who really enjoy that sort of thing. I don’t. Most don’t. So… please don’t ask. When we say ‘Yes’ we’re not really happy about it and when we say ‘No’ we feel like we’re dissing somebody’s baby. So … Don’t ask. Kay?

VENTRELLA: Finally: What’s the latest news on the possibility of movie adaptations? What other exciting scoops can you share?

RINGO: Zero. Nothing moving on that area. It sort of norks me that I’ve got 33 novels published or in the pipeline and so far I don’t have option or contract one. OTOH, given that I’m a ‘controversial conservative sf author’ (three strikes against me since even Syfy no longer does SF) I’m not really surprised. Just…norked. (Mildly irritated.)


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