Interview with author Ryk E. Spoor

MICHEAL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author Ryk E. Spoor today!

Ryk, like many genre writers (including myself), you read science fiction from a young age and then got into gaming. What is it about role-playing games that encourages people to become writers?

RYK SPOOR: Well, on both sides of the game – GM or player – the game itself is telling a story. It may be a very simple story, especially for beginning players or people just in it for a beer-and-pretzels amusement, but a story about how these people go out, confront problems, solve the problems, and achieve their goals. So pretty much by its very nature, RPGs make you into a storyteller … which certainly encourages you to start writing down the stories that affected you most. It’s all downhill from there.

On the GM’s side, of course, it’s even more so. You’re the person who constructs, or at the least controls and directs, the entire world. You know what the villains are doing and why, you have to figure out how they deal with things when your players do something you don’t expect (and they always do something you don’t expect), and so on. That’s pretty much what a writer does – invent a world and tell us the stories in that world. For some writers, there’s even the equivalent of those annoying plot-busting PCs; some writers find their characters taking off on their own.

So honestly, I think the fact is that the very essence of a well-run RPG is storytelling, and anyone who does that a lot will have stories they want to tell.

VENTRELLA: On a previous blog post, I wrote how important it is to make connections if you want to get ahead in the world, with publishing being no exception. Your story is a bit unusual in that regard. How did you go from being a fan/troll to a published author?

SPOOR: Heh. The short version is that I insulted the right person at the right time. I could give you the long, long version, but since this is a written (and presumably to be webbed) interview, let me just point you here; the key part starts with the sentence, “Then one day, I got into an online argument with Eric Flint”, which is a little less than halfway down that page.

VENTRELLA: Had you ever submitted any stories for publication before that?

SPOOR: I actually had submitted a short story when I was 11 to a magazine (I no longer know even which one). It was some years later that I started submitting the Jason Wood stories that eventually became DIGITAL KNIGHT. All of the rejections for those stories read the same way: “This was a great story, everyone in the office loved it, but it’s way too long for magazine publication.” Of course, as individual stories, the Jason Wood stories are also far too short to be novels; they’re novelette or novella length works, which has for years been pretty much the worst length to try to publish.

The three stories which formed the core of DIGITAL KNIGHT – “Gone in a Flash”, “Photo Finish”, and “Viewed in a Harsh Light” – were eventually collected by me and put up for electronic purchase as “Morgantown: The Jason Wood Files” at; this was long before the e-book explosion happened, of course, since they were up for several years before Baen ended up publishing me.

VENTRELLA: Who were your favorite authors when you were growing up and what was it about them that appealed to you?

SPOOR: There were a lot of them. When I was very young, the most influential was L. Frank Baum, author of the Oz books. I loved Oz – the world, the people, and the subtly macabre and more complex-than-I-appreciated universe. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books were very strong influences because they were a glimpse into what it was like to grow up in a world that was this one …yet not the one I knew.

My dad had quite an SF library that I went through as I got older, but it was my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Dickinson, who introduced me to E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series by lending me a battered, somewhat cigarette-scorched copy of Second-Stage Lensmen. Doc became my single biggest influence for years; he defined “sensawunda” to me, and I in fact wrote GRAND CENTRAL ARENA specifically as a salute to him.

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

SPOOR: Depends on the book, to a great extent. I have to outline when I’m working with a co-author, like Eric Flint; we discuss the general idea, then I work up an outline, he kicks holes in it, I fix it, we agree on the outline, and then I go to work.

For my own work, it still depends somewhat on which books. In DIGITAL KNIGHT, all of Jason’s major adventures were “outlined” in a single concept: the “trick” or “twist” that he uses to take down the supernatural opponent du jour. Knowing that, the only other thing I had to do was figure out who my main character was; the rest started writing itself.

For PHOENIX RISING, I’d plotted the basic outline of Kyri’s adventures out partly during my gaming time, as Kyri was originally an RPG character. But a lot of her adventures simply fell out of the fact that I know the world so well that by now I can just write it.

With GRAND CENTRAL ARENA I had to first construct the universe; some of that I discussed in my appearance in John Scalzi’s The Big Idea; I actually did write out an outline for it, so I could pitch it to Baen, but once I had the outline I started writing. In many ways the finished product doesn’t look all that much like the outline.

But if I know what I’m writing, my process is basically just to sit down, put on my earphones, and write. I average about 1200 words per hour once I get moving, and I don’t rewrite or edit for the most part; I can’t see flaws in my own writing unless I wait something like five years, so I depend on my beta-readers and my editors to tell me when I’ve screwed up.


SPOOR: Oh, I could talk about that all day. PHOENIX RISING is the first volume in the Balanced Sword trilogy, although since I don’t yet have a contract for the other two volumes I have done my best to give it some kind of closure on its own. The basic story focuses on Kyri Vantage, who loses first her parents and then, later, her brother to unknown forces despite what everyone had thought were strong protections against evil; when she discovers just who and what was behind this, she is forced to become a living representative of a desperate, weakened god in order to bring justice to her home and eventually, she hopes, discover and destroy the true source of this evil; the events, of course, have a far greater impact and importance than Kyri recognizes at first. Other threads in the book follow the other two main characters, Tobimar Silverun and Poplock Duckweed, as they first meet each other and then eventually catch up with Kyri at a crucial moment.

This is a terribly important book to me. I wrote the first draft of Kyri’s story in 1992, and I’ve wanted to tell her story ever since; more, this is the first appearance of my fantasy world of Zarathan, which I created back in 1978 and have been building ever since. Zarathan was mentioned, very briefly, in DIGITAL KNIGHT, but there was no real vision of what it WAS in that book.

PHOENIX RISING is also quite complicated; there are threads of plot seen which are part of other stories – for instance, one character who plays a significant role for a part of the book is actually a main character in the projected Spirit Warriors trilogy, and there’s another couple of characters we see a few times who are major players in my other projected trilogy Godswar; basically the problems sweeping the world in PHOENIX RISING are so huge and complex that no one group of heroes can deal with them all; you need at least three separate groups. For the reader, I hope such things give them the feeling of a larger, more real universe, one in which there are a million stories outside of the story we’re following.

Zarathan itself is my main fantasy RPG world (to refer back to your earlier question), and I’ve been running games in it for well over 30 years now, building it, rebuilding it, and coming to a deeper understanding of the universe every day.

VENTRELLA: If I am not mistaken, you have created a universe with both fantasy and science fiction elements for your stories. How have you made the twain meet?

SPOOR: Essentially, the rule to me is that normal physics holds sway unless something changes those rules explicitly. Magic does so, some psionic capabilities do, but that means that science works just fine; it’s just a subset of the laws of nature rather than the whole thing.

It’s really not hard to combine them; as Dave Hargrave, writer of the Arduin Grimoire series of RPG supplements, put it, where’s the alien with the ray gun going to stand out more: on the streets of our cities, or in the fantasy RPG city with the fireball-flinging wizard, magic-sword wielding barbarian, and the dragon flying overhead?

The only trick, so to speak, is to have clear rules as to how the various powers behave and interact. Technology, psionics, and magic all have various advantages and disadvantages in my universe and play off each other in various ways and situations.

Really powerful magic, though, is restricted to Zarathan itself, at least until after a certain event happens, but while I’ve written one story set after that event, overall that’ll be a while before I get there.

VENTRELLA: There seems to be a trend away from science fiction, toward fantasy, steampunk, and “urban fantasy” these days. To what do you attribute that change?

SPOOR: There’s several factors. The “low-hanging fruit” in SF was all taken years ago, and general knowledge of the way science works – and doesn’t work – disseminated more and more through the population, making some of the old-school approaches no longer viable. You can’t have your characters just tinker up a spacedrive in the basement and cruise around the solar system in a homemade rocket and expect anyone to take you seriously any more.

The big news in science has also gotten, on average, a lot less immediately accessible. This is part of the overall progression of knowledge; back in the late 1800s to very early 1900s, it was still possible for one person to be “A Scientist” – someone who was an expert in more than one of the general disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology, etc. Nowadays, it’s hard to be an expert in a splinter branch of any of them. Back then, the average (reading) layman could probably grasp in general terms most, if not all, of the key problems and ideas being explored by scientists of the day; today, many of the concepts, especially in physics, require that you understand some very esoteric concepts before you even grasp the question, let alone the answer.

Fantasy is not easier to write, really, but it’s easier to make graspable because the complexity of the rules governing the world aren’t going to be more complex than the writer wants them to be. Plus, in most cases, the fantasies assume they take place on Earth or a very Earthlike world, so the reader is expected to “fill in” lots of detail all by him or herself. From a writer’s point of view, it’s also safer. No one’s going to go to Tolkien or Brooks, or me, for that matter, and tell us that our magical worlds don’t work the way we think they do. But writers of hard SF? Yeah, we’ll have people telling us when we get it wrong. Stridently, in some cases. The fact is that even if you do a lot of research, you’ll have to stop the research somewhere and get to writing … and it’s an ironclad guarantee that you stopped just before getting to some key fact that a particular group of fans consider critical.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t have similar screwups in fantasy, but those are all going to be the kind of screwups you can get in ANY story: failure of internal consistency.

I also think it’s a change in optimism that happened over the last several decades. During the late 1800s through the 1950s, science was romantic, awesome, and wondrous. It was going to solve all our problems. We were going to create new species of plants that would grow food anywhere, make space colonies on the moon and turn Mars into a second Earth. We were going to analyze the workings of the brain and abolish mental illness; we were going to cure cancer and solve the mysteries of the universe.

But science doesn’t actually work that way, and as it ran into the fact that some problems are very resistant to solution (commercial fusion and true artificial intelligence, still 20 years away and have been all my life!), the general public began to also see some of the consequences of misuse of technology (pollution, etc.) and associate this WITH technology. The shiny glow of hope faded and the chrome-plated future got tarnished. But shining worlds of high fantasy can’t be rendered hopeless by the same process … and one can also, of course, apply the same overlay of grimness and edginess to fantasy as one can to SF, so the net result is much more fantasy and less clear SF.

(of course, we’ll note that this assumes that there’s a clear division between SF and fantasy, which isn’t the case)

VENTRELLA: Creating new worlds is fun but also difficult in that there is the need to explain the world without massive info dumps. How do you do it?

SPOOR: I’m not sure I’ve mastered it yet. Sometimes I feel like I do nothing in the beginning of a new book but try to dump the info into the readers’ head.

The main techniques that I use are the tried-and-true methods of either (A) having the characters discuss key information as part of a normal conversation – usually with one character who has some reason not to know the key info, so they’re not “As you know, Bob …” type discussions, or (B) having the information emerge from the events of the story.

This latter technique is one that is best used for pieces of information which will actually become vital sometime later in the story – Jane’s doing X, which happens to cause Y to happen, leading her to realize (along with the reader) that Z is one of the characteristics of the world. Twenty chapters later, Jane realizes that applying Z will get her out of the situation she’s in. This allows the reader to follow along and maybe guess what Jane’s going to do with this new-found knowledge. I did this in Grand Central Arena to plant all the clues for how Ariane would be able to defeat Amas-Garao in the final Challenge.

VENTRELLA: I’ve recently realized that all my stories have the everyday person who is stuck in a situation and must overcome great odds through bravery and intellect – the reluctant hero who has no extraordinary skills. Have you find any connecting threads for your protagonists?

SPOOR: I like my heroes Heroic and my villans Villanous, for the most part. I don’t usually have reluctant heroes, although inexperienced and sometimes clueless heroes, that’s fine. As I tend to write my stories (just as I run my RPGs) at a high power level, they all tend to be at the least very highly competent and at the most quite superhuman in order to survive the threats they’re up against.

All of my characters – heroes and villains – tend to be smart. That doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes or misjudge things, but that they try not to do obviously stupid actions. The really smart ones often think many steps ahead. I want to see smart heroes VS smart villains

Most of my characters tend to be fairly modest, often underestimating their own abilities. The few arrogant ones (like A.J. Baker) usually get smacked down fairly regularly.

High Melodrama is my preference in writing, and most of my characters share that preference in their behavior. I have to rein in that tendency when writing hard SF like Boundary, of course.

VENTRELLA: How do you get inside the minds of your characters to make sure they all don’t talk and act alike?

SPOOR: Heh. Sometimes I don’t think they do. I actually don’t have a … technique per se. I just get to know who they are and then I know what they’d say, and how they’d say it. I couldn’t tell you why, but I know when something is right and when it isn’t, so I write it the way that sounds right.

VENTRELLA: Ryk, we met while on a panel together at Albacon some years ago. How important is it to attend conventions to promote yourself?

SPOOR: I honestly can’t say; I can’t afford to go to many at all, so if it’s important, I’m in deep doo-doo. Aside from Albacon, I used to go to Genericon; other than that I was at I-Con once, the World Fantasy Convention when it was up in Saratoga, and Worldcon when it was in Boston, but I haven’t done much promoting. I’m terrible at promoting, actually. I hate it; I’d rather spend my time writing, unless the promotion’s something fun and flashy in and of itself.

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

SPOOR: I’ve had generally good experiences with publishing, so I have minimal criticisms, aside from saying that the publishers who are clinging to DRM are gonna shoot themselves in the foot. About the only thing that’s annoying is long delays in reaction times, but alas, there’s so much slush and so hard to get people to read it, so there’s not likely to be much change there.

I think publishers need to look at reaching out to the self-publishing industry and offering professional services such as editing in an organized sense. This might be one thing that can keep them alive in the changing landscape of publication.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

There’s so many names. The old classics like RAH, Heinlein, etc., still work. Terry Brooks usually gives a good entertaining read. My preference is for worlds that are overall brighter than this one, or whose heroes at least shine brightly, so a lot of current writers tend to skirt the edge of that threshold, like Harry Connolly and Charles Stross.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of manga, especially Naruto and Fullmetal Alchemist – some of the best stories I’ve ever read, actually.

Out of genre, some of my favorite comfort reads are Nero Wolfe novels or the adventure classics like Scaramouche, the Count of Monte-Cristo, Scarlet Pimpernel, etc.

Honestly, however, I’ve had a lot less time to read since I became an author. I probably read more stuff to my kids than I do to myself.

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

Heh. I never learned from advice, so I’m terrible at giving it. Only two things, really; they’re pieces of advice someone did tell me eventually, but not when I started writing:

1) Never make it easy on your characters.

2) Don’t let anyone tell you there’s one particular way to write; “There are nine-and-sixty ways to compose tribal lays, and every single one of them is right.” That said, writing takes work, it’s not magic.

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

SPOOR: Again, two, I think.

1) Thinking they have some precious, original idea that someone will steal. No, you don’t. Any idea you have, someone else already had. Probably five or ten someones. And they did it at least twenty years and maybe as many as two thousand years before you think they could possibly have done it. No one’s trying to steal your ideas. Especially other writers; we have more ideas already than we know what to do with.

2) Not reading. Especially in the genre. This would partially alleviate #1, because you’d be seeing all the other ideas. Unfortunately, a lot of new authors appear to be coming in mostly from non-print media. You really should read quite a bit of the older stuff, then the newer stuff, before you try to drop into the business, otherwise you’ll think you’re onto a new twist on an idea when it’s actually a twist we’ve seen a hundred times. I averaged a book a day from the time I was 7 or so until I was probably in my mid to late 20s. I don’t expect everyone to hit that level, but reading a bunch of the foundational classics of the genre is awfully important to ground you in this business.

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

SPOOR: “Would you like this check for a million dollars?”

Honestly, while all interviews skip over one question or another, all of them together seem to have hit all the questions I’d expect someone to ask. Maybe, in a few years or ten, I’ll have had enough interviews to notice something missing!

Ryk and me on a panel together at Albacon 2010


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